Brazil’s Gold: How Rio Won Its Olympic Bid

Last fall, after losing previous bids, Rio de Janeiro — Brazil’s second-largest city — won the approval of the International Olympic Committee to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. According to Carlos Roberto Osorio, secretary general of the Brazilian Olympic Committee, this time around, Rio had learned from its earlier failed bids and had the success of hosting the 2007 Pan American Games under its belt. That, combined with Brazil’s “special circumstances” of economic stability amid the global downturn, helped it to beat out rival cities. In an interview with Wharton management professor Felipe Monteiro and Ken Shropshire, a Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor, Osorio discussed the winning bid and the challenges that lie ahead.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Knowledge@Wharton: Thanks, everyone, for joining us. Mr. Osorio, I’ll start the conversation off by asking you a very general question. After bidding in the past, Rio finally won the right to host the Summer Olympic Games in 2016. What do you think made Rio the winner this time? What was the winning pitch?

Carlos Roberto Osorio:  Bringing the Olympic Games for the first time to Rio — and to Brazil and South America — was a long journey. The previous bids were part of a learning process. When we first tried to get the Olympic Games for the year 2004, we had a very basic project, and not a very deep understanding of the Olympic world and the requirements to host the Olympic Games. So, I think what Rio did [this time around] was to find an objective. Rio is a sports city. Brazil is a sports country. Rio is a city that is absolutely tailor made for outdoor sports, and it has beautiful surroundings. Entertainment, leisure, sports and tourism are part of the city’s core business. So, to organize major events was always at the core of Rio’s plan for development.

What made the difference [this time] was, first, experience — because we have bid before and we have organized large-scale events before. Add to that the special circumstances that Brazil is living now: It is a country that is stable and strong economically, with great prospects for the future and the critical mass [necessary] to host the games. So, I think the combination of gained experience and these special circumstances won the bid.

Felipe Monteiro: In 2007, Brazil hosted the Pan American Games. You were personally involved in those games. Which lesson, if you could single out one, did you learn from the Pan American Games that you can now apply to the Olympic Games?

Osorio: I think the most important lesson — and not only a lesson, but also an exercise that we went through — is the integration between the organization of a large-scale event like that and the government. An event like the Pan Am Games — which is a multi-sport, continental event with 6000 athletes — or a worldwide event with almost 11,000 athletes like the Olympic Games cannot be organized without the support of the public sector. You cannot [welcome] 100,000 or 200,000 people [to your city] without additional public services and additional infrastructure. And to coordinate all that, you need integration. So, with the Pan Am Games, we built that relationship — we built an understanding with the public sector. And quite frankly, we delivered excellent games, considered [by many to be] the best Pan Am Games ever.

That result, that accomplishment, paved our way for the Olympic victory…. [When] we bid for [the 2004 Olympics], and we lost, there were some people [who said,] “Now, let’s go for the 2008 Olympic Games.” And we in Brazilian sports said, “No — one step at a time. Let’s take this large, continental event first, get the experience needed, and then aim for the big one.”

Ken Shropshire: Carlos, you were successful in your bid, and one of the cities you beat was Chicago. I’ve heard you say that Chicago brought us Obama, they brought us Oprah, but they still didn’t get the bid. What do you think they could have done that would have given them at least a better chance to get the bid against Rio?

Osorio: We acknowledged Chicago from the very beginning as a very tough competitor. Chicago’s a great city. It’s a sports city as well, with a great tradition in sports. It’s a very important U.S. city. And the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States gave Chicago, internationally, additional clout, because Chicago is [Obama's] political base, you could say. Also, Barack Obama has brought the United States to a better position, internationally, following the Bush years, which were not perceived as favorable by many people in many parts of the world. So, in the beginning of the bid race, Chicago was perceived as the frontrunner by most of the political and Olympic observers around the world.

As for Rio, we tried to differentiate ourselves from Chicago, and also from Madrid and from Tokyo, from the very early stages. Our pitch, quite basically, was this: The United States has organized — between summer and winter [events] — eight editions of the Olympic Games. [The Olympics in] 2016 would be the ninth. For Tokyo, it would be the fifth. For Spain, the second — and if you take the European Union at large, it would be the 30th. But for Rio, Brazil and South America, this would be the first time — and at a time that we were doing very well.

I think what differentiated us from the other bidders was, first, this positioning. And second, that [our bid was] led by Brazilian [sportsmen]. We were not businessmen. We were not politicians. We were sportsmen talking to sportsmen. And that channel of communication on our side worked better than with the others. Chicago had difficulties with the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), [which has experienced several] changes in management in recent years. That undermined the ability of the U.S. to project itself in the international arena, on the sports side. And for a future U.S. bid, I think to have the USOC stable and on board is, quite frankly, very important.

Monteiro: One of the biggest challenges managers face is accessing knowledge that they don’t have internally, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I think the Olympic Games is a good example of this. How have you managed to reach out and find the knowledge that you needed to organize [the Olympics] outside of Brazil — outside of what you already had?

Osorio: From the very beginning, we acknowledged that because we had never organized the Olympic Games, we lacked experience, and we lacked knowledge. The Olympic Games is the most complex and the largest event that exists on our planet during times of peace. It’s a huge undertaking for any country or any city.

First, we got from the Brazilian government and Brazilian society the best possible advice and the best possible people involved in the bid. [We were able to do so] because there was a clear perception of value in getting the Olympic Games for Brazil. Second, we went outside, and we looked to the world. And [because we have participated in this process] many times, we were very competent [in finding] good people abroad, to bring in the needed expertise to add value to our project. So, we didn’t pretend that we knew everything. We knew that we had many things to learn, and we got very good people from Australia, from the United States and from Europe, who added their talents to our team, to build a very strong [bid]. And this, I think, was one of the reasons for our success. We are very proud to say that we definitely had the best consultant teams in the bid process.

Shropshire: [Among] consultants, one of the issues that’s important with these Games — or with the World Cup, or any global event now — seems to be the level of social impact and legacies. You could combine the two. I was fortunate enough to work on the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and the pieces that we were looking to leave behind were money; having Los Angeles viewed as a player in the Pacific Rim; and then there’s the swim stadium and a velodrome. Those were the key pieces we were focused on leaving behind. [How does that apply to] Rio, as your planning goes forward?

Osorio: Well, I think you hit the most important point of our desire. Our motivation to participate in this process is to take advantage of an event like the Olympic Games to make a real difference in the city and in the country, in various ways. First, in terms of the city of Rio itself, [it's] the amount of investment in infrastructure that the Games will bring to the city. Actually, Rio didn’t ask Brazil for money to do many new things; we are accelerating existing processes. Because of the time frame of the Games, things that would be done in 20 years will be done in seven years. We are talking about metro expansion, roads, airport renovation. So, the infrastructure of the city will be transformed — and with that, the quality of life. Also, the ability to attract additional investment.

But, these are the tangible [outcomes] of the story — and in our view, the smallest part of the story. We are not shy to say that Brazil is a country that has social problems. One of the biggest problems that we have is the inequalities within our society. We view sports, and the Olympics Games in particular, as an excellent tool to foster social integration, to foster and to motivate young people to join sports, and [to make] Olympic values [part] of their future lives. So, the social legacy of the Games will be a very, very important part of our project. Everything that is going to be done in Rio [relates to] a vision of physical legacy – that’s very important. But more important is this big opportunity to leverage [social] programs that already exist, to foster integration within the society, and to raise a younger generation to a better standard of living. And sports is an excellent tool to foster education and to deliver this legacy.

So, we are very thrilled by the legacy potential. And I think that’s one of the reasons that Rio was chosen. We clearly showed to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that the impact in Brazil would be much greater than in developed or established societies such as the U.S., Japan and Spain. We are a society in transformation — still in formation. And an event like [the Olympics] will have a tremendous impact, not only in Brazil, but in the whole of South America.

Monteiro: I imagine a number of people are also very interested in all the business opportunities that the Olympics will generate, not only for local business, but also for foreign investors willing to invest in Brazil. Can you share with us some of your preliminary ideas in those areas?

Osorio: Sure. And developing your point, which is a very important one – Brazil acknowledges that one of the objectives [for] the Games is to project “Brand Brazil,” and to project Brazilian products and services and companies internationally. We are living through a period of fast economic growth. Brazil has been stable economically and politically for almost two decades, and it has the critical mass now to jump to the next level. We see the Olympic Games as a strategic part of the growth of the Brazilian economy, and kind of as a coming out party for [the country], to present its new face to the world. As with Korea in 1988, with Spain in 1992 and more recently with Beijing in 2008, the Olympic Games is a very powerful springboard to lift a country, to lift a culture and people — to give that momentum that is necessary if you want to reach a higher level.

[With respect to] your question, what we are doing — and the Brazilian government is doing — is establishing a series of programs to use the Olympic Games to attract businesses and to attract investors to Brazil. [We are] tying in [the] World Cup 2014, the Olympic Games 2016, and other opportunities — and the investments that are attached to those big events — to attract new people, more investments, and to project our companies overseas. This will be a systematic approach — a core approach within our strategy for the next six to ten years.

Shropshire: So, after the world sees the great success of Rio, what’s the next venue on the planet that could use the Games — capture the Games in the same way that you’re talking about?

Osorio: That’s a very good question — and I thank very much for it, because that was part of our message. We felt that with Rio, Brazil and South America, [we are] opening the door to new territories, and to new regions of the world that also aspire to [host] the Games. Quite frankly, up to now, only the more developed parts of the northern hemisphere had the opportunity to organize the Games — North America, Europe and certain parts of Asia. With the victory of Rio and Brazil, and with the successful staging of the event, we are certain that [the door will open for] Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, which has strong economies like India. We feel that Brazil is helping the Olympic movement to become really universal. If this is a universal phenomenon, it belongs to all regions of the world.

Of course, you have to understand that the undertaking is very complex, and it requires a lot of money and investments. You have to have a critical mass to organize it. But other regions of the world and other countries do have the critical mass to organize it. So, Indonesia, India, South Africa, maybe Egypt in the future. Certainly those countries should and will get the Games.

Monteiro: Rio is known as the “Marvelous City.” The Cariocas [residents of Rio] are known for their joy, and for Carnival. What do you think this Olympic Games will be remembered for?

Osorio: The promise that we made to the IOC is that we will organize a Brazilian Rio Games … with our own special flavors and characteristics. And the IOC said, “Yes.” If we look back, the Olympic movement always got stronger when it connected with new people and new cultures. This adds value to the Olympic brand, and to the Olympic ideals. We see the Rio Games as being a colorful, young, tropical — enthusiasm infused with passion, which are the characteristics of our city — but delivered with a professional, high-class quality of services. The Rio Games will be, in summary, lots and lots of fun.

Knowledge@Wharton: Another question for you — and this is just looking ahead at the work you have cut out for you. What is it that keeps you awake at night? What has you worried the most?

Osorio: Well, now we are beginning the organization of the Games. We are just laying out the foundation for the organization. I think it always worries any organizer of a major event when you don’t control substantially one of the ingredients that will make your event happen. For instance, you depend upon various stakeholders and influencers or partners. And very importantly, [you depend] on the government and also on the media, which starts to build the image of the event.

I think our main focus right now is [to begin] the capital investments necessary for the Games — everything that was promised that is the responsibility of the government — to get [projects] going on schedule, within budget. And with that, we’ll go to the next phase. So for now, the main concern is capital works to start as planned.

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you have any concerns about security for these Olympics?

Osorio: Since 9/11, security has become a top concern with any large-scale, high-profile, worldwide event. And the Olympic Games is the largest, with the highest profile. The Olympic organizers become very concerned — and rightfully — over security. So, we have presented to the IOC a security plan, which is, in our view, very professional, and with lots of investment in it. We acknowledge that Rio has challenges in [terms of] security, and we didn’t hide that from the IOC. We presented, up front, the situation in Rio.

But we also presented our track record. Rio is a city used to organizing large-scale events, yearly, and without any problem. For instance, the Pan American Games that we organized in 2007 had 6,000 athletes, with 700 athletes from the United States alone. We had more U.S. athletes in Rio in 2007 than the following year in Beijing…. And we didn’t have any incident, large or small. Additional precautions were taken. Police were brought in from different regions of the country, as happens for all events. And we had very peaceful games.

But our challenge is not to secure Rio during the Games in the far-away year of 2016; our challenge is to continue to improve, to raise the security level so that security can be one of the big legacies of the Games. Not only for the Games’ visitors and participants, but for our population after the Games. That is a $1.2 billion program that is being implemented successfully. We really hope that, for the Games, we have no big security concern. Our concern is to take this opportunity to get the job done, and have security levels improved for the population.

Monteiro: I can see President Lula crying when Rio won…. What’s the pulse of the population? How happy are people about the Olympics?

Osorio: Oh, people are just thrilled about the possibility of organizing the Olympic Games. This was a big accomplishment for our country, and a big accomplishment indeed. The Olympic bid process is considered to be the most complex, the largest, the most sophisticated in the world. And the prize is the biggest. On average, in two years, bids [require spending of] $60 million [to] $100 million. And it’s a worldwide campaign, with very tough competition. You’re competing with the best in the world. And for Brazil and Rio to win, it brought pride, self esteem, to our people. And that’s very important alone. I think the legacy of the bid itself is so powerful, that the investment was well-spent. If you go to Rio now, you’ll see people with broad smiles on their faces, looking forward to receiving the world, proud about their city, and willing to work hard — understanding that, “Okay, we [won] the right [to host]. Now we have to deliver. Now we have to honor our promise in front of the world.” And people are ready and committed to work very hard to make sure that the Games are a success.

Knowledge@Wharton: Having gone through this process, as you described it, what leadership lesson did you learn that you would probably take forward in whatever endeavor you take on next?

Osorio: First, you have to dream big — because when you dream big, you accomplish more. What we say is: To dream big and to dream small take the same effort. But when you dream big, the obstacles seem smaller, and that makes you go forward…. And to bring the Olympics Games to South America for the first time was a very big dream.

Second, [in order] to succeed, you have to have a very good team. You have to be surrounded by the best — by people better than you are, with everybody working in the same direction. And so these are quite simple … messages for leading or managing. Dream big, get the best people around you, and make everybody work in the same direction. Then you will have a powerful team, and you’ll deliver.

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