Lessons from Rio 2016 Olympics
The Rio 2016 Olympic games has come and gone. Nigeria’s athletes participated in many events but came home with a single bronze medal to show for it. The downward trajectory in Nigerian sports has been apparent for a while to anyone who has been paying attention. We haven’t won a gold medal since the technical gold we won at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and our overall medals haul peaked at six far back in 1996. It may seem like luck hasn’t smiled our way but the reality is that success at sports has little to do with luck but a lot more to do with science and long term planning.
First the science. There’s a certain randomness in the distribution of human features when we are born. Although we inherit genetics from our parents there are always anomalies. Some people are born with genes that make them tall. Others with variations that give them long arms, or fast twitch-muscle fibres, or extraordinary lung capacity. The first part of the science of winning is finding these people. The people with the natural potential to be better than the average, and finding them while they are young.
Nigeria is a big country with an estimated 180 million people. By the laws of statistics, we should have lots of people born that advantage. Every time you see a 9-year-old who runs so much faster than his peers, odds are he has that advantage. Every time you see a 7-year-old who has unbelievable dexterity, it is probably due to that advantage.
Unfortunately, talent only gets us so far. The second part of the science of winning involves training, competition and mentorship. Without the proper guidance the 9-year-old who had potential would probably end up just as an average athlete who had potential. To get a sense of the role that competition and mentorship plays in success at sports it is useful to examine the sporting life of Usain Bolt.
No doubt Usain Bolt was born with the right genetic advantages for sprinting but his path to success doesn’t end there. Bolt started showing signs of talent at primary school competitions and by 12 he was the schools fastest runner. By the time he got to secondary school he was already being coached and mentored by a former Olympic sprinter. It wasn’t always plain sailing though. While doing some research for this article I discovered that Bolt actually participated in the 2004 Athens Olympics and won nothing. Although to be fair he had a leg injury at the time.
In essence, Bolt’s athletic career, from a very young age, was filled with trainings and competitions almost all the way. Although Bolt had the natural talent to succeed, he was helped along the way by the Jamaican athletics programs. The same programs that continue to produce top athletes that dominate global athletics.
Those of you who read my work, or my blog, are probably wondering when I became a sports analyst. Don’t worry I am still an economist. But in many ways the story of success in development is that same as in sports. Yes, we may have a vibrant population that gives us a natural big market. Yes, we may have relatively fertile land that is good for some types of agriculture. Yes, we may have some natural resources. However, all that points to is potential. The business of turning potential into outcomes is long and hard work. It is work that doesn’t happen overnight but requires consistently implementing good policy over a long period of time.
Too often we hope for overnight success in the economy just like we do in sports. We hope that, despite having no serious plan and shambolic preparations, we will somehow win medals. Although we might get lucky every now and then, most times we won’t. The economic growth star of the last decade is China but they didn’t just become the economic behemoth overnight. The reforms that drove China over the last few decades started way back in the 1970s. Vietnam is one the manufacturing buzz words today but the policies that are driving the current manufacturing boom there were implemented in the 1990s.
We have a tendency to implement economic policy like we do in sports, hoping for overnight miracles. Which is why you find policies that hope to go from producing almost no wheat to being “wheat self-sufficient” in two years. Or policies that hope to move Nigeria’s steel production from about 100,000 metric tonnes in 2013 to 6.8 million metric tons by 2018. Or policies that hope to “fast-track” spending by side-stepping cumbersome laws. Each time I read such statements it says to me the policy maker is hoping for miracles. The truth is miracles don’t happen that often.
Economic development, like sports, is about implementing good policy consistently for a long time. As they say, you have to put in the time to get the rewards and in most cases there are no shortcuts.
Dr. Nonso Obikili writes from Enugu and tweets @nonso2. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the views of his employers.