2018 Commonwealth Games in Sri Lanka?

Tuesday, 26 October 2010 02:28 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Lessons from previous games

Being into competitive combat sports I was devastated about the news that our boxer, the only Gold medal winner at the Commonwealth Games, had allegedly used the banned anabolic steroid Nandralone, which is a banned performance enhancing drug in the world of sports.

I guess the National Olympic Committee (NOC) had no option but to temporarily take custody of the gold medal until the second test result is out within two weeks.

But just like the case of Susanthika, until the ‘B urine’ test comes out as positive, Sri Lanka is yet clean. In the case of Susanthika, however, the circumstances were different and she went on to later win a Silver medal at the Sydney Olympics and I remember when I was leading the global brand Dettol, we became her first global brand sponsor. She helped us take the brand to rural Sri Lanka.

The need of the hour right now is to provide all the professional support possible to pull the Sri Lankan boxer out of this situation.

Thinking big

Be that it may, the other day when a news report read that Sri Lanka was bidding for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, it gave me a positive vibe, given that Sri Lanka was planning for ‘events’ as far away as 10 years from now, when it was not long ago that we used to just about look at a horizon of one month at the most due to the raging battle with the LTTE.

This information also echoed the comment made recently at the CIMA Conference when a Deputy Chairman of a blue chip company mentioned that for the first the time the company was investing $ 1 million on training their senior managers of the hotel sector, which was a luxury at one time when survival was the name of the game.

Even if this news report of Sri Lanka wanting to host the Commonwealth Games was only an idea, the very thought of Sri Lanka thinking on a broader frame is a good sign. I remember a Brazilian boss that I once reported to stating that the real test of leadership was the ability to ‘think big’ and then develop a visionary community to make that that big idea a reality.

In the recent past we have seen similar ‘think big’ ideas emanating from the private sector with thoughts such as financial hub, tea hub, port hub, shopping hub and knowledge hub in Sri Lanka. We also heard the announcement of the first Industrial Zone in war-torn Jaffna that was being launched with the support of the Indian Government and also after eight years the historic trade talks between Iraq and Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is on the right track in the ‘think big’ syndrome. It’s a good disease to contract!

Whether or not the 2018 Commonwealth Games happen in Sri Lanka, let me share a few thoughts that Sri Lanka must be cognisant of when staging gigantic sporting events in a country.

Lesson 1: Why?

Whilst we can chalk up very objective reasons for staging the games in Sri Lanka, it’s important to understand the lessons from the past games that have been staged in other countries. If we take the great Athens Olympics, the original budget was at $ 4.8 billion and finally the bill came to a colossal $ 12.5 billion, which shaved off two percentage points of the EU economy’s GDP. The games did nothing to add value to brand Greece other than being cited as a case study around the world on how not to organise an Olympiad.

On the other hand, if we take the Beijing Olympics of 2008, the country ran up a staggering bill of $ 40 billion but post the games when the analysis was done, it was not a cost to the Chinese Government but an investment towards building the required infrastructure on the ‘urbanisation drive’ that was required for the 750 million Chinese who had come to live in Beijing from rural China.

Hence, the 40 billion dollar investment was part of the economic agenda rather than just cost incurred to stage the Olympics. This included the sewerage system, transport, entertainment centres and the famous Bird’s Nest Stadium that became part of the University of Beijing later on.

Sri Lanka needs to do the same if we are serious about staging the 2018 Commonwealth Games. The investment must be part of the bigger agenda of developing Hambantota as a commercial hub of South Asia.

This is where India failed as the initial reports that are emerging state that India wanted to demonstrate to the world that it was above China as a political and economic power and pumped in an estimated $ 6 billion dollars into the Commonwealth Games. The plan backfired and in fact embarrassed India and took away its shine as the emerging super power.

Sri Lanka must not fall into this same trap and must be very clear on the broader objective before embarking on this challenging task.

Lesson 2: Bigger picture

Let me once again take the successful Chinese Olympic model and explain this point. At the drawing board stage, China first chalked up the five-year master plan and agreed on the key steps required for the urbanisation agenda.

For instance, the transport requirement in the five year master plan included the railway hub that was required to be set up, the Beijing subway and the Tianjin expressway that was required to be upgraded so that the 750 million commuters could spruce up the Beijing economy based on efficiency, which was the bigger picture of the economic agenda of China.

Sri Lanka must do the same as I can see the contour of Hambantota taking shape. From the Cricket Stadium in Sooriyawewa to the port that will have its first vessel calling in November this year to the potential cruise ships that might also drop by, we can also see a top international university setting up in the near future.

Given that the Southern Highway has already happened, the basic infrastructure is in place for the next stage development agenda that can happen in Hambantota. This will be similar to Beijing’s hidden agenda when wanting to stage the 2008 Olympics Games. The question is whether Sri Lanka can afford this as my best estimate is that it will cost the country a minimum of US$ 4-6 billion.

Lesson 3: The world is watching

If we take the most successful games that has been organised, I would rank the 2000 Sydney Games higher up the agenda than the Beijing Olympiad, since the organisers clearly segmented the market to pre, during and after.

In fact the marketing programme was so successful in the pre segment that it covered the total cost of the games. The organisers offered free airfare to all the 187,000 officials who came for the games.

It is on this same model that London 2012 is being architectured as per what their CEO Sandie Darwie said when she came to Sri Lanka in July. However, as mentioned to her, I feel UK has lost its way: if we take the tourist arrivals as at the first half of the year, the numbers are below by 2% against last year. But, I guess we will have to wait and see how the next two years unfold in terms of attracting the ‘pre visitor’ segment.

This is where Delhi failed to make the grade at the Commonwealth Games. The negative reports in the global media not only cast a dark cloud on the games but also on attracting the pre visitor business into the city. This is what Sri Lanka must take note of. Sri Lanka must be ready by 2016 with all its venues including the Athletes Village as most of the press comes in well before the event so that the event gets the boost it requires to cover the cost as much as possible.

Lesson 4: Bidding cost

If Sri Lanka is really serious about hosting the games, we also must note that the first hurdle is to win the bid. This also comes at a cost. For instance, India had to offer US$ 100,000 to each member nation for their vote to beat the offer made by Hamilton of US$ 70,000. Separately, the oversight CEO had to be hosted for almost two years and the cost of the mansion that was required was US$ 3,600 for just a month, according to what is being reported.

This is the cost that we must be ready to bear if we are to host the 2018 Games in Sri Lanka.

Separately, we must also be sensitive to the adverse perceptions globally and this needs to be corrected with a nation branding campaign not to paint a pretty picture but communicate the reality and thereby give the country an image that it actually deserves.

This will also cost a fat dollar budget but this is what Sri Lanka requires right now given that the State is working on correcting the ‘Ease of Doing business’ index, where Sri Lanka can become a 65th ranked country in the near future.

Lesson 5: Get a Modi

Sri Lanka must get a ‘Lalith Modi’ of the world. Modi was the brainchild behind the IPL success story. If one really does a ground search, it was Modi who sketched the architecture of IPL way back in 1995. Today’s US$ 4 billion brand is a reality due to the ruthless passion and commitment of this man.

Sri Lanka must also pick a man to drive the project similar to Modi and what the UK did by picking the great Sebastian Coe, who saw London through to stage the 2012 Olympiad. The only difference must be that instead of just letting one man drive the project, it is best to appoint a high-powered team to support the event such as a legal expert, senior accountant and professional marketer so that it becomes a business entity and works on corporate ethos rather than as a one-man show like what happened in the case of IPL.

May be it can fall under the new Companies Act so that there is responsibility and accountability, which will avoid the stench being unearthed from the Delhi Games.

Lesson 6: Private partnership

The recently-staged IIFA Awards must be a key learning for Sri Lanka, where we saw that the Government cannot run a mega event – this is not due to a lack of talent but due to the administrative regulations and financial regulations that need to be followed.

Hence it is paramount that we pick up this learning and make the Commonwealth Games a private-public partnership in the development agenda. This will also drive in an automatic governance model into the structure.

 Lesson 7: Mother Nature

Let’s accept it. Even with all the planning there are certain variables that cannot be controlled by man. For instance, Delhi was lashed with a monsoon this year on a scale which had not been seen for the last 30 years. Hence, Sri Lanka must be ready for any eventuality that Mother Nature will unleash on the country when having to stage an event of this nature.

However, the experience curve is gathering momentum given that we are staging almost 10 matches at the World Cup 2011, including games against Canada, Australia, Pakistan and Bangladesh.


Whilst it is a very positive sign to see Sri Lanka thinking big and thinking ahead as far as 10 years from now, we also need to pick up the lessons the world has learned when staging mega sporting events so that we truly become the ‘Wonder of Asia’ is showcased to the world.

The good news is that we have many other lessons to pick up before the 2018 Commonwealth Games. This includes the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, the Brazilian Olympics in 2016 and the Football World Cup in 2014 – a unique double that no country has got the benefit of doing so.

Whether we host the 2018 Commonwealth Games or not, the proposition of thinking big and so far ahead will hold Sri Lanka in good stead in the years to come.

(Rohantha Athukorala is a business economist by training when he headed Sri Lanka’s National Council For Economic Development under the Presidential Secretariat when the country averaged a 7.4% GDP growth whilst he is a business professional by practice, twice winning the Marketing Achiever and Business Achiever Award from Alumni PIM, University of Sri Jayewardenepura whilst also winning a global leadership award from Johnson Lever. Athukorala is actively involved in the growth agenda of the Sri Lankan economy.)

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