The Road to Rio: Competing for Olympic and Economic Gold

There is nothing in the world that defines “competitiveness” better than the Olympic Games. For two weeks every two years, the world’s most talented and gifted athletes gather in a city chosen years in advance through a rigorous bidding process to compete for gold (and bronze, and silver and a legacy). The games bring a vivacity and sense of national pride to citizens around the globe, and have the potential to create economic growth for the chosen city (if you’re Los Angeles or London, anyway).

When the International Olympic Committee (the IOC, since we in DC love acronyms) chose Rio de Janeiro as the site for the 2016 Olympics back in 2009, the world was a very different place. Brazil was the B in BRICS, poised to be one of the most dominant forces in the global economy along with Russia, India, China and South Africa. Angelina Jolie was serving as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and raising awareness of a somewhat unknown refugee crisis faced by 42 million uprooted people. With the exception of a handful of doctors and scientists, no one had heard of Zika Virus.

By these measures, the world today would be nearly unrecognizable had anyone from 2009 jumped in a DeLorean and came back to the future. You’d be hard-pressed today to find someone unaware of the refugee crisis that now plagues nearly 70 million. And they have a new ambassador: a team of Refugee Olympic Athletes set to compete in Rio. The U.S. Center for Disease Control has issued travel warnings for Zika across the Americas from Miami to Maracanã, where Friday’s opening ceremony will be held. And Brazil is closer to being the B in BROKE than BRICS, and the bricks are falling.

A country that’s annualized rate of economic growth was 5% in 2009 is now contracting. Its infrastructure is failing to support the 500,000 spectators about to descend upon the city. Athletes and fans alike are skipping the Games, citing Zika fears (which many believe to be unfounded). So despite the fact that Brazil is about to be the home to the worlds largest and most prominent competition, its global competitiveness is fading faster than the Patriots’ playoff dreams after Brady’s most recent suspension (just kidding, they’ll probably still make the Super Bowl).

All this begs the question, what makes a country competitive, anyway? While there’s no secret sauce, here are a few factors that underpin competitiveness:

1. Infrastructure. Without reliable physical infrastructure — buildings, roads, hospitals, transportation systems — not to mention educational and financial infrastructure, a country cannot support the economic activity required to compete globally. While events like the Olympics incentivize the host city to upgrade existing infrastructure, this is often done hastily, haphazardly, and sometimes cheaply. There’s a reason, after all, that the U.S. has roads and bridges that are older than Methuselah: it’s expensive and typically takes more than the requisite 5–7 years these cities have to make these upgrades.

2. A decent standard of living for its citizens. No one wants to live in a country that cannot ensure access to basic human needs — water, food, housing, health care, security — to its people. If a country cannot provide a decent standard of living, a cycle is created in which productivity falls, the economy fails to grow, and any hope of attracting or retaining the talent needed to break the pattern dissipates. Rio has been unable to provide a decent standard of living to its Australian athletes, whose Olympic Village homes first suffered from blocked toilets, then caught fire and were robbed during the evacuation. Imagine what many of its citizens must go through.

3. Opportunity. We live in a world with limited resources. 7.4 billion people must compete for these resources — sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. Either way, knowing the opportunity to emerge victorious exists is enough to fuel the fire. When 10,000 athletes converge in Rio this week, a competitive spark in each will undoubtedly be set ablaze by the opportunity to walk away from the games a national hero. These athletes are no different than countries, companies and people that often desire nothing more than the opportunity to compete and succeed.

So as the world prepares for Friday’s opening ceremony for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the competitive spirit is on display, front and center — not only for the athletes, but for Rio, Brazil and the world. It remains to be seen what the outcome will be, but the message is clear: prosperity cannot be achieved without competitiveness.