Entrepreneurship and Economic Lessons from the Olympics

By at 7 February, 2014, 10:43 am

by Raymond J. Keating-


For this sports fan, worker, economist and business school professor, opportunities, risks and disappointment swirl around the 22nd Winter Olympics running from February 6th to the 23rd in Sochi, Russia. Let’s consider the Games from each point of view.

The sports fan sees nothing but opportunity. I’ll be watching events that I would not give a passing thought to during the other 1,442 days – give or take – between Winter Games. That includes becoming obsessed with curling.

Now, having said that, the worker is worried about that nine-hour time difference between New York and Sochi. That means resorting to tape delayed events, or watching live online. In fact, every event will be streamed live via Great, right? Well, issues like sleeping and working loom, however. Very inconvenient. Well, there’s always caffeine. Lots of caffeine.

The economist is the one who must deal with disappointment. Quite frankly, the Olympics, always billed as an economic engine for a city and nation, usually turn out to be either an economic dud or economic negative. As I noted in a recent Long Island Business News column, “Hosting the Olympics is a dangerous economic undertaking. And there really is no economic gold medal, as massive costs and, as the Russians are showing, corruption far outweigh any possible positives… [T]he Russian people, already long suffering, will be stuck with a hefty tab.”

And then there is the business professor, who is always looking for popular events from which to derive business and management lessons. I’ve come across a few articles doing just this.

For example, in an article titled “Sochi Lessons – Working with Culturally Diverse and Distributed Teams,” Alexandra Levit uses the Olympics example of bringing together workers and teams from different cultures to look at “four best practices to keep in mind when managing a culturally diverse and distributed team.” Namely, learn about employees’ cultures in order to achieve “a strong sense of purpose” and “maximum productivity”; have a comprehensive communication plan; make an effort to meet face-to-face at least once a year with employees distributed around the globe; and for the worker in a very different time zone, encourage team members to “reach out to the time zone-challenged individual at least once a week so that he feels connected even if he can’t participate in every meeting.”

Another piece by Tom Curtin, titled “Managing a Crisis – Five Lessons to Learn from the Winter Olympics,” serves up quick tips to deal with challenges that have cropped up relating to various Olympic Games over the years. My favorite from Curtin is the following:

While most former Olympic Parks are opened up to the public the facilities for the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics serve a slightly less welcoming function. Following the end of the games the dormitory facilities at Camp Adirondack became the Adirondack Correctional Facility which today plays host to around 700 prison inmates.

Lesson: It pays to think long term – consider the reputational legacy you are creating.

And finally, Michael Tandarich nails it when identifying traits held in common by both Olympic athletes and entrepreneurs. In the article, titled “Sochi 2014 Olympics: Olympians and Entrepreneurs Have These 6 Things In Common,” Tandarich points to dedication, confidence, mental toughness and resilience, patience and persistence, laser-like focus, and strong work ethic. Under each topic, he provides some valuable tips that entrepreneurs must keep in mind, with illustrations coming from those Olympic athletes.

Among his key points, one that jumped out at me was the following: “Passion feeds dedication. If there is no passion for the type of service or product you are offering, dedication will eventually wane. Dedication is a constant, everyday thing; successful Olympic athletes do not loose their dedication after the Olympics are over. No, they remain dedicated so they can compete another day. Like Olympians, successful entrepreneurs must remain passionately dedicated to their business, day in and day out, even when their feelings are not in agreement.”

So, when you’re watching the Winter Games – whether on tape delay or live via the Internet at crazy times – take note of the athletes and their respective stories. I think you will find that they are, in fact, entrepreneurs. Some work in small businesses with a dedicated team. Others are in partnerships, and many are effectively sole proprietors. They are the owners, operators and risk takers of their sports careers, and they work to become the best in their respective fields. Indeed, in certain ways, part of the Olympic spirit is the spirit of entrepreneurship.


Raymond J. Keating is chief economist for the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council.

Keating’s new book, published by SBE Council, is titled Unleashing Small Business Through IP: Protecting Intellectual Property, Driving Entrepreneurship. It’s available from here.

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