Sport Development Agenda: Has it been relegated into obscurity?

Despite overwhelming evidence on the benefits of sport to national and regional development, this field of human endeavour is surprisingly always absent on the agenda when economists, planners and other so-called “development experts” convene meetings to discuss regional integration and development of nations and sub-regions. Although sports people contribute to a positive image of their countries, Southern Africa and indeed Africa in general, their efforts are seldom recognized and rewarded. This sad situation is compounded by low rates of sport facilities construction in Africa.
Furthermore, the issue of provision of sports infrastructure is rarely discussed at World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) African Development Bank(AfDB), Southern African Development Community (SADC) forums. Investments in sports are not always considered as critical needs or viable economic options. One cannot logically contest the need for urgent investments in other sectors such agriculture, education, energy, health, telecommunications and transport. However, economic planners and decision makers can only ignore the power of sport to the detriment of holistic and balanced development of nations as well as accelerated regional integration.
If sport in Southern Africa or the continent as a whole is to develop meaningfully, sport leaders must find ways and means of forcing the issue of sport facilities development onto the agenda. Sports facilities are the bedrock of sport and community development. Without the necessary facilities and other ancillary services, the sport and recreation sector cannot develop to its full potential like in other parts of the world. The construction of facilities is just the beginning.
There is need to ensure adequate maintenance of the facilities to guarantee continued utilisation. In addition, hosting world-class events requires facilities of high standards.
The African continent and especially our Southern African region cannot continue to be spectators in the cut-throat competition of bidding for and hosting major events. For example, London recently hosted highly successful Olympic and Paralympic Games. The city is again bidding to host quite a number of individual sport code events as well as the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
Another UK city, Glasgow, will next year, be hosting the Commonwealth Games and it is also bidding to host the 2018 Olympic Youth Games. It is therefore evident that the United Kingdom has a well-coordinated strategy of hosting major events, making sure that sports tourism contributes to overall tourist traffic to the country, thereby helping with the development of the economy. This is every important considering that the world economy is undergoing a very serious recession with diminishing rates of growth and economic activity for most countries.
Southern Africa has unique and wonderful tourist packages to offer over and above hosting major events. Southern African countries can provide meaningful competition to the North American, European, Asian and Australian markets in terms of hosting world-class events.  The problem is that sport leaders are not clearly articulating the value of developing facilities to take advantage of the universality of ethics guiding most International Sports federations (ISFs) and other organisations in terms of consideration of bids to host major events.
No country has a divine right to host all major events but certain countries are good at strategically positioning themselves to ensure that they always provide fierce competition regarding the hosting of world-class events.
Taking into account the economic crisis engulfing the Eurozone nations and considering that most rights holders are tired of going to the very same countries every time, Southern African sports leaders and governments must position themselves strategically in order to win bids for major international events. There is an urgent need to exploit the prevailing peace and stability in the region.
Furthermore, Southern African sports authorities must learn to hunt as a pack, by developing a regional approach to attracting major events to the sub-continent through networking and leveraging each other in terms of cultural and eco-tourism packages that individual countries have to offer. Southern Africa has the potential to offer exciting and memorable experiences to the visitors, especially since most parts of Southern Africa are accessible from the Johannesburg hub of air travel, with many resorts within the region being accessible within 1-3 hours flight.
By successfully hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup, South Africa proved beyond reasonable doubt that Africa has what it takes to host major events. The original unfounded biases, misinformation, prejudices and condescension and sometimes downright contempt can no longer stand the test of scrutiny in international forums when strong bids are put forward by either one or a group of Southern African countries.
However, there is need for follow-up investments in sports facilities, hotels, airports, communication and transport infrastructure to ensure that Southern Africa provides real competition to traditional markets. The challenges are now internal or sub-regional, as countries have to individually or collectively prioritise allocation of significant resources required for the construction of sports facilities and other supporting infrastructure required for hosting world-class events.
Sports tourism can, therefore, be a driving force for the creation of employment and economic development in other sectors. The hosting of events provides business opportunities at all levels, ranging from the big commercial entities to the medium   and small companies as well as informal traders.  
Sports events are year-round activities of which calendars are usually set years in advance, allowing prospective bidders to prepare themselves accordingly. Even if a country does not win the bid to host a major event at the first attempt, there are always opportunities to try again in the future as long as the facilities are adequately maintained. The facilities can also be utilised to host other events either at continental or regional level as a way of testing their suitability and readiness for major events.
The time has come for sport to be put firmly on the national, regional integration and development agendas, taking into account the multiplicity of benefits to individuals, communities, nations and the entire Southern African region that it brings. The contribution of sport is also a matter that requires sports leaders and economists to undertake further research in order to make informed recommendations for evidence-based decision making by governments and private sector companies.
Hosting of major events also exposes  people in the region to various other lesser known sport codes, be it, athletics, badminton, basketball, judo, karate, handball, swimming, taekwondo or table tennis.
Sports leaders need to work hard to bring a substantial number of world championships to our shores to provide meaningful sports tourism business to the economies of this region.  The time for action is now!

June 2013
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