THE controversial World Student Games, which opened 20 years ago today (Thursday), have paid off for Sheffield, according to the latest research.
Despite debt repayments for council taxpayers still running at £24m a year, the city’s sporting legacy offers a template for next year’s London Olympic Games, it is argued.
The £147m spent on the sports and leisure centres built for the 1991 Games show a proven return on investment in the medium and long term, said Chris Moriarty, an expert in public sector sport management at Sheffield Hallam University.
“The benefits of investing in the infrastructure and world-class facilities are wide and varied. Some are financial and can be quantified. Others are about more difficult-to-measure concepts – local pride, social cohesion, health and wellbeing and so on.
“The decision that the city took in hosting the World Student Games is paying off in terms of legacy and the authorities connected with London 2012 should certainly be looking at Sheffield’s successes.”
Twenty years since the opening ceremony at Don Valley Stadium, the Games remain one of the most contentious episodes in Sheffield’s recent history because of the financial implications for the council.
Critics say the annual burden on the budget outweighs the benefits of the facilities such as Don Valley Stadium, Ponds Forge, the Arena and Hillsborough Leisure Centre, and it is being felt especially keenly at the moment, when the council has to find up to £57m over the next year to offset Government cuts.
But Mr Moriarty, of Hallam’s Sports Industry Research Centre, said one of the key consequences of the Games has been to generate an estimated £113m for the local economy as a result of major sports events being staged between 1991 and 2010.
“Additionally, many non-sport events make use of the major facilities built for the World Student Games, so the total figure is likely to be greater than £113m.
“We’ve yet to measure the economic impact of the full range of events that are hosted as a result of the major facilities and event management skills base that exists in Sheffield.”
He added: “Twenty years down the road, the facilities are still generating £7m to £10m a year from sports events and that shows no sign of declining. The facilities are still well managed and are looking good.”
The Labour council’s decision was taken against the backdrop of the collapse of heavy industry and the loss of thousands of jobs. The Lower Don Valley had been decimated.
Mr Moriarty, a student volunteer during the Games, said sports, leisure and tourism should only be seen as one strand of Sheffield’s regeneration strategy, alongside the likes of the Heart of the City project and the new digital industries, but Sheffield had been ahead of the game in its sports investment.
At the same time, the Games facilities had been built without Government or lottery funds, unlike with the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games or the London Olympics.
“It did pay the price for being a pioneer. If the decision had been taken 10 years later, the cost to taxpayers would have been far smaller. You can’t get around the fact that the costs are significant, although the final costs are unclear because the financial arrangements for the construction of the facilities were complicated to start with and have been further complicated by restructuring of the debt on at least two occasions.’
There were other spin-offs. The Lyceum and Hyde Park flats, where athletes were accommodated in 1991, were refurbished on the back of the event.
Yet objectors point to total debt charges over the entire period adding up to £658m. From last April to March 2024, when the payments finally end, the amount the council still has to find is about £361m.
Local Liberal Democrats, among the most vociferous critics, say their job when they were in power would have been much easier without the annual financial burden. Labour councillors defend the legacy of the Games but remain sensitive to the criticism. For years, they were extremely wary of major projects, fearing the possible financial consequences and allegations of “another white elephant”.
Times may have changed and Sheffield may have changed but, 20 years on, the controversy over the World Student Games can be expected to run and run.