As Tokyo is currently hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games, what is the impact of the Games on the sport for development and peace (SDP) sector?

In addition to the economic benefits, the social impact of major sporting events is now being scrutinised. As the first global sporting event, the Olympic Games now positions itself as a catalyst for change through sport.

The IOC and sustainable development

Recently, the collaboration between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the United Nations (UN) has been considerably strengthened. In 2009, the UN General Assembly granted the IOC permanent observer status, allowing it to contribute to UN programs. In 2017, the two organisations consolidated their ties through a new approach. The UN will now have direct access to the know-how and expertise of the IOC, its 206 National Olympic Committees and the International Federations.

In the Olympic Agenda 2020, a strategic roadmap for the future of the Olympic movement adopted in 2014, the IOC highlights sport’s ability to achieve 11 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the UN for 2030. The 15 recommendations of the Olympic Agenda 2020+5 also emphasise the role that sport can play for development. For example, the IOC is committed to the reforestation of the Sahel through the “Olympic Forest” project, in order to improve food security and increase the sources of income for local communities.

The Games as an accelerator for SDP? 

Beyond the economic and urban impact, the notion of legacy, introduced in the Olympic Charter in 2003, is now used to grasp the Games’ consequences since London 2012 . The concept of legacy, which is much broader than that of impact, refers to both tangible and intangible dimensions. It involves measuring the causal effect of the Games on a large number of outcome variables covering a variety of subjects: economic activity, employment, well-being, sports practice, tourist flows, environment, etc. (Collinet & Schut, 2020).

Thus, the Organising Committee for the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games is counting on the Games to promote sport-health and fight against sedentary lifestyles. Paris 2024 has also launched, in partnership with the French Development Agency (AFD), a call for projects “Impact 2024 International” to encourage development through sport in Africa.

In addition, the Olympic Games have a strong media impact and can showcase the use of sport as a developmental tool. In Tokyo, nearly 49% of the athletes are women. This near parity represents a symbolic step towards gender equality. Since the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the Refugee Olympic Team, headed by our Senior Advisor Tegla Loroupe, has been competing under the IOC banner. This is an opportunity to raise public awareness on the specific issues of refugees and promote a message of hope and integration on an international scale. The Paralympic Games are a lever for equal rights and the fight against discrimination of people with disabilities. Arnaud Assoumani, Paralympic long jump champion and Sport Impact Leader, says: “We are all equal on the field”.

A platform for developing countries

As a vehicle for national prestige, the Olympic Games have become an issue in international relations. For developing countries, sports diplomacy is particularly important, because it provides a more easily accessible global platform. Indeed, one of the first reflexes of young independent African states was to join the IOC (Arboit, 2009). Medal-winning athletes participate in the promotion of a model and national conciliation. For example, the international press widely reported the surprise victory of Tunisian Ahmed Hafnaoui in the 400-meter freestyle swimming final in Tokyo as a “great success for Tunisian, Arab, African and Mediterranean sport”.

Indeed, the awarding of the 2026 Youth Olympic Games (YOG) to Dakar is partly due to effective sports diplomacy. The YOG is part of Senegal’s economic and social development strategy, which stakes on consumer benefits, job creation, sustainable sports infrastructure and increased investment opportunities in the sports sector (AFD, 2019). This global youth event, a unique platform for Africa in general and Senegal in particular, also provides an opportunity to use sport to promote access to education, health, and healthy lifestyles.

The Games remain an opportunity to develop sports initiatives with social impact and to increase the visibility of sport as a developmental tool. Nevertheless, the legacy issue remains controversial, since “the difficulties in reporting on the social benefits of major events are inversely proportional to the ease of reporting on their economic difficulties” (Collinet & Schut, 2020). In addition, many sport and SDP actors are calling on the IOC to be more committed to human rights, racial justice, and social inclusion, including changing Rule 50 to prohibit all political demonstrations at the Olympics, so that sport, as a social and universal phenomenon, can make a lasting difference.