The Rio Olympics Were the Best Business School for Brazil

The Games vastly improved the country’s human capital. Every bus driver got used to giving better service and every supplier learned to meet demanding schedules.

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The statue of Christ the Redeemer on Mount Corcovado and a crowd at the Rio Olympics, August 18, 2016.
The statue of Christ the Redeemer on Mount Corcovado and a crowd at the Rio Olympics, August 18, 2016. Credit: Matt York, AP

I shamelessly admit it: I’ve fallen in love with the Olympics. That means the competitions, the athletes and the Cariocas – the warmhearted residents of Rio. But I still haven’t seen anything of the city itself. I’ve focused on the Games.

The Olympics have turned me into an addict. Although I was already a sports fan (I spent two years planning the Rio trip), I’m now a junkie who needs to shoot up directly; more and more sports events or I can’t calm down.

It could be judo, where I spent my first week, swimming, cycling, fencing, windsurfing, running, high jumping, basketball, volleyball, handball, soccer, beach volleyball, tennis, table tennis, wrestling, weightlifting, boxing, field hockey – and that’s just a partial list. Well, I have another two days to fill in the rest.

Surprisingly, the symbol of the city, Jesus spreading out his hands on Mount Corcovado, doesn’t do it for me. Neither does the famous Sugarloaf Mountain, or even the Copacabana beach with its hot women and men. They all stand in the shadows compared to the breathtaking, one-time competitions.

The truth is, I’m a cold-calculating economist who’s always looking for a relative advantage. When will I ever again be able to see Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Rafael Nadal or the amazing gymnast Simone Biles? When will I have the privilege to hear the roar of the warm Brazilian crowd, which cheers its athletes with an ear-splitting power and great love? So my choice was clear. Jesus on the mountain would have to wait.

Was it worth it?

Some 10,000 athletes competing in 39 sports will pack their bags and head for the airport in a few days. Rio will return to normal. So will half a million tourists who came to the city to watch the Games. So the question remains, was it worth it? Did the enormous expense for the Games benefit Rio and Brazil?

It’s a discussion that lasted the entire Olympics, but for Rio the answer is pretty clear. The city exploited the Olympics to do a face-lift. It invested $9 billion in infrastructure, a necessary investment that hasn’t been done for 50 years.

And the city no doubt was improved, at least in transportation and housing. A new subway line was added, a highway was laid down and special bus lanes were built.

Japan and China battle for the table-tennis gold at the Rio Olympics, August 18, 2016. Credit: AP / Petros Giannakouris

In housing, the Olympic village and the journalists’ residences will be turned into new neighborhoods – something that will allow the expansion of the Barra da Tijuca neighborhood, where the Games took place. Sport facilities will become entertainment, culture, exhibition and sports centers. Even a new museum was built, right in the heart of the downtown – the Museum of Tomorrow.

And what about the false prophets who spread the pessimism on thick before the Games? When will they apologize and say they were wrong, they scared people in vain, they were seeking headlines, they were exaggerating minor problems, they turned a tiny mosquito called Zika into a rival of the Black Plague that wiped out a third of Europe in the 14th century?

Reality teaches that the Olympics were launched on time and ended on time, successfully. So when will we see those apologetic articles? When the Messiah comes.

The best tip

I received many good tips from various Olympic experts whom I questioned on the eve of my trip. Thanks to them I managed my time well; I saw so many different sports. But they forgot to tell me one important thing: Check when Brazil is competing and go there.

After all, the Brazilians change the entire atmosphere. They go out of their minds cheering their athletes. They roar, stomp, bang drums, sing, wave their hands, light their smartphones and dance in the aisles. And if the blue, green and yellow win, the stadium bursts into shouts and samba.

When they won the gold in 60-kilogram boxing, the stadium almost collapsed. When they beat the United States in women’s beach volleyball, I thought about getting the hell out of there.

The Brazilian pole-vaulter upset the French world champion, who justifiably complained that the crowd’s shouting disturbed him in the middle of a jump. Maybe that isn’t acceptable, but it’s over.

Tennis vs. ping pong

On the way to the table tennis final, I noticed that only Chinese and Japanese people were filing the bus. So I joined in to observe the art of speed, precision and quick reflexes, but I discovered a deprived noble sport. Is this because tennis is European and table tennis Asian?

In tennis, the players wear stylish white clothes with small sponsor logos. In table tennis, they wear shorts and a plain shirt. In tennis, 100 lackeys on the court serve the god holding the racket. They hand him a white towel and he throws it back with scorn. They run to bring him the balls, and a bevy of judges examine every movement. Plus electronic devices determine whether the ball hit the line.

In table tennis, even if you’re the world champion, you have to bring a towel from home and go to the sideline to wipe sweat from your face. And no one brings you the ball; you have to hoof it and fetch it. And there are only two judges, without electronics.

Tennis courts have security guards at every entrance to the stands, who only let you find your seat during a break between games. In tennis, the gods developed an amazingly complex point system so the plebes won’t understand.

In table tennis, the scoring is amazingly simple; there’s no pretense or arrogance. No one is dealing with public relations and millions of dollars in sponsorships. It’s the reason I went to watch table tennis.

In praise of human capital

In modern economics, mineral wealth is less and less important. What’s important is human capital, which dictates a country’s standard of living. And the Olympics vastly improved Brazil’s human capital. Every street cleaner in Rio who worked around the clock knows this. Every engineer who built the impressive, huge facilities learned something new.

Every bus driver got used to giving better service. Every supplier learned to meet demanding schedules. All the media and internet suppliers improved their game, and all the television stations upgraded their technology.

It’s the biggest television production in the world, with 6,000 production hours and broadcasts around the world around the clock. This has been weeks of an intensive management course, better than any university.

The irony is that now, a couple of days before the end, everyone knows his role exactly. Every journalist knows how to reach every facility, and the security and transportation are flowing smoothly. But now they’re going to have to take everything apart.

We’ll see each other in Tokyo four years from now. This is a long-term love story.

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