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Pan Am Games and Economic Assistance

Pan Am Games and Economic Assistance

Posted by Juan Gavasa on March 11, 2015

Every four years, the Pan American Games offer a two-week platform for nations to showcase the talents of their native sons and daughters, and, by proxy, themselves.  The window of opportunity is narrow, success is anything but guaranteed and, considering the cost for a nation to send a team of athletes (not to mention the significant personal cost to the athlete), the payoff, aside from a boost in national pride, isn’t always clear.  In July, Toronto and Canada stand to reap most of the financial benefit from the games—considering the estimated  $2.5B investment the host country will have made in the games.

Certainly a number of athletes will achieve a measure of fame or add to established reputations through individual successes in 2015.  Winning and record-breaking performances can translate into celebrity and lucrative endorsement deals, but to what degree do those triumphs impact the home front?  Most of the 41 participating nations can be classified as developing with economies sorely in need of a boost. What is needed is a strategy for sustainability in sports and business opportunities which can be a realistic legacy for the 2015 Pan Am games. What can be done?

Athlete Development: More and better trained athletes will produce more and better performances.  This would seem an obvious point, but often the nations that would benefit most from showcasing its talent struggle to produce medal-winning performances or even enough athletes to seriously compete.  For example, Haiti sent 12 athletes to Guadalajara in 2011 and won no medals, and has garnered a total of 7 medals in the 16 games since 1951.  Meanwhile, a nation of similar size and population, Cuba,sent 443 athletes and earned 136 medals in 2011, the third most in the games.To underscore the opportunity that Haiti (pop 9.7 million) is missing every four years, the Cayman Islands (pop 54,000) also sent 12 athletes to compete in Guadalajara, scoring three medals.

Why does Cuba succeed where Haiti does not?  In part due to the efforts of the National Institute of Sports and Physical Education and initiatives such as the School Sports Games that identify and funnel the best young athletes to Schools for Sports Initiation. A strong emphasis on sports on a national level has made it possible for Cuba to churn out world-class athletes.  Thus Cuba (pop 11 million) can compete with much larger nations like second-place finisher, Brazil (pop 201 million), which scored141 medals in 2011, besting Cuba by a mere 5 medals.

Granted, establishing a system like Cuba’s is a long-term proposition that would require a serious investment of time and capital with no guaranteed return; and government interest in areas such as sport may not be a priority for poor countries.   With vast resources for athlete development available in the likes of Canada, the United States, Mexico and Brazil, however, Pan Am games should allocate more resources to underperforming nations like Haiti and Bolivia (pop 10 million, 2 medals in 2011), and nations with small populations like Suriname, the British Virgin Islands, the Dutch Antilles, and St Lucia, to increase their participation, share of the medals and the spoils associated with victory.

Create Heroes. We have touched on this notion with the Cuba example, but it follows that a nation that actively endorses and reveres its athletes improves its chances of producing them.  Jamaica has become synonymous with sprinting, and Jamaicans have embraced their stars.  Usain Bolt cites Herb McKinley and Don Quarry as personal influences, and attributes Jamaican success to intense competition among children to be “The Next.”  Certainly there is a risk inherent in making heroes of athletes, particularly in light of the doping scandals, but the iconic status of Jamaican sprinters remains a powerful beacon for attracting talent. 

Build Sports Infrastructure. The Thomas Robinson stadium in the Bahamas, opened Feb 2012, is still in its nascent stages, but the joint Bahamian/Chinese initiative (China provided $30MM to fund the project), indicates that the Bahamas (22 competitors, 3 medals in 2011) is making a serious effort to build a sports culture that will attract international sporting events and help develop athletes to compete in such games abroad.  That the stadium was a gift from the people of China suggests that maintaining strong diplomatic relations with economic powers can lower the price tag that comes with major undertakings such as these.

Advertise.  It may be assuming too much that an athlete’s success even on a scale of Bolt and the Jamaican sprinting team, will trickle down to the benefit of a country and its populace.  Indeed international athletic successes have made celebrities of Bolt and his teammates, but it is difficult to determine that gold medals have translated into economic growth.  Athletic success on a global scale is mercurial and certainly not guaranteed.  It is perhaps wiser to capitalize on athletes’ participation in the games rather than banking on their successes. 

Creative advertising campaigns across various media can link athletes to the image and opportunities  their respective countries want to project:  Financial services and tourism in Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Panama and the British Virgin Islands; music and tourism in Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Cuba; and coffee in Honduras, Costa Rica, and El Salvador.    

An ample amount of time stands between now and the 2015 games, enough for government ministries, stakeholders, tourism authorities and chambers of commerce to coordinate their efforts. A determined marketing push leading up to the games could turn potential travelers and investors on to the opportunities that the region has to offer. Indeed the games can be used as a beacon to bring together the diaspora of the 41 countries participating promoting a closer integration of trade and tourism in the Pan-American region.  

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