All over the developing world, metropolises are rushing to cement their status as “global cities”. These are metropolitan centres that compete to become important hubs of cultural and economic activity in the interlinked global world. It’s all part of what scholars describe as “the modernity game”. And sport is rapidly emerging as an important way to display modernity and earn the “global city” mantle.

In earlier times, Western countries played host to massive events like the World’s Fair to cement their status as modern world cities. Non-Western countries were left to “catch up” – and despite their best efforts, few beyond Japan, South Korea and Singapore managed to do so.

International sporting competitions are the new World’s Fair and can propel cities up the global city rankings. Hosting the Olympic Games (in summer or winter, depending on their climate), the Commonwealth Games or a single discipline event like the FIFA World Cup offers cities prestige.

Pyeongchang County, South Korea is hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics and Tokyo will host the 2020 Summer Olympics. For “globalising” cities in emerging market economies, these sporting extravaganzas offer a way to demonstrate their “rising” geopolitical importance.

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For proponents of the “global city” model, this is reason to celebrate. But it also illustrates the ongoing attempt by non-Western countries to compete not only in sports but economically and culturally with the former colonial powers. Who are the modernity game’s score-keepers? Who decides who is winning and who is losing? Who determines what counts as “global” and what constitutes the “modern”?

For the moment, the referees still seem to be primarily Western in terms of historical, geographical or philosophical orientation. The rankings after all originate from the West and are judged by Western entities. So, win or lose, it is still the West’s game. They make the rules.

When elites in emerging market economies accept the rules of today’s modernity game and agree to play by them, they’re re-enacting a centuries-old inferiority complex in relation to the coloniser. By accepting the rules, they’ve already lost the game.

They’ve lost in more than one sense. By allowing the (former) coloniser to define the field of competition, they’ve conceded the ability to craft their own definition of “modern” and “global.”

Internalising the rules of the modernity game entails an acceptance of equating positive judgement with “successfully” adhering to Western ideals. This sounds abstract but concretely, it results in the misdirection of money that could be better spent elsewhere.

Flexing geopolitical muscle
Countries are using sporting events to illustrate their increasing geopolitical significance. There are plenty of examples.

China hosted the 2008 Beijing Olympics. India hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2010, the same year that South Africa staged FIFA’s World Cup 2010. Russia will host the soccer showcase later this year and Qatar will host it in 2022.

Brazil hosted the 2014 FIFA World Cup and, two years later, the controversy-ridden Summer Olympics.

The BRICS nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa – and other “developing” countries had to direct already limited resources away from important social projects to stage these expensive events.

Citizens of these countries have become increasingly wary of the huge costs and question the wisdom of spending national monies on a once-off spectacle.

South Africa’s 2010 World Cup and the same event in Brazil four years later were met with protests by citizens who wanted to see their countries’ scarce resources put to better use. Both countries have high levels of income inequality.

Similar protests took place before the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics.

Governing elites in each of these instances overrode the waves of dissent with a dismissive, “on with the games” attitude.

Why do governments direct scarce resources to hosting games over their citizens’ more basic needs? Why are elites in developing countries so determined to succeed at the modernity game and make their cities “global”?

One line of argument is that “global cities” attract investment, tourism and knowledge workers which all help the economy to grow. To attract professionals, many aspiring “global cities” have also made large investments in expensive art. Hosting sporting events and art fairs are useful in building “global cities” for highly-skilled workers and high-end consumers.

But there’s little space for the working-class majority in any “global city”. These places tend to suffer heightened social divisions and high inequality.

Global sporting events exacerbate these problems: cities’ poorer citizens are often displaced, “making way” for new stadiums and other infrastructure.

A colonised mentality?
Instead of playing the modernity game, why don’t “developing” countries change the rules? My research indicates that the elite obsession with “catching up” with the West does not result in erasing an inferiority complex vis-à-vis “superior” Western modernity. Instead, it entrenches the inferiority complex that took root through colonialism.

The Japanese philosopher Takeuchi Yoshimi argued that Japan’s post World War II modernisation efforts amounted to trying to “catch up” with the “colonial master”. This, he writes, represents the intensification of the master-slave relationship between the coloniser and the colonised.

The modernity game, although not modernity, originated in the West. Cities can only “win” if they adhere to Western standards. Yes, that adherence can be positive when it yields good infrastructure and access to clean water and services – assets that benefit many people. But when the “game” only results in more inequality, it’s clearly time to change the rules.