Guest Articles

August 5

Scott Anderson / James Militzer / Kyle Poplin

The Olympics: Social Business Opportunity – or Expensive Distraction?

Yunus: Sports addresses income inequality

As a nobel laureate and the man most widely credited with popularizing microcredit and the concept of social business, Muhammad Yunus is one of the most influential entrepreneurs in the world. But in a speech to the International Olympic Committee, the founder of Grameen Bank said that nothing matches the power of sport to shape global consensus and speed the momentum of change.

Yunus declared rampant income inequality as a “ticking bomb” that could, and in some ways already has, set off economic and political upheaval. He argued that it is incumbent on the sports world to embrace social business as a means of leveling the economic playing field.

“That ticking bomb has to be addressed and sports has the power to address that,” he said. “You control the youth of the world.”

Yunus noted that children are naturally drawn to sports and games, and also are drawn to entrepreneurship. Focusing on entrepreneurship would “give a new perspective for looking at the new generation” and contribute to achieving Goal 8 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which involves promoting inclusive economic growth and decent work for all, he said.

Watch the address and a Q&A that followed:


– Scott Anderson


Editor’s note: Speaking of the Olympics, NextBillion editors James Militizer and Kyle Poplin discovered this week that they’ve got sharply divergent opinions on the Olympics – which officially begin today – and how they impact the planet. In the spirit of the Games, they decided to settle their debate in a friendly head-to-head matchup. (By the way, they’d love to hear your opinion about the Olympics.)


Point: There’s so much to hate about the Olympics

Like a handful of fellow buzzkills lurking in the dark corners of the internet, I can’t stand the Olympics. There’s just so much to hate:

And this year’s event has added some uniquely dreadful items to that list, from the pointless killing of an (endangered) mascot, to the risk of accelerating a global pandemic. But those aren’t even my main issues with the Games. The real reason I hate the Olympics boils down to two words: opportunity cost.

The term refers to “a benefit that a person could have received, but gave up, to take another course of action” – a devastatingly apt description of the Olympics’ effect on host cities and the wider world.

Let’s look at the cities first: Every two years, another starry-eyed metropolis foolishly invests billions to build a highly specialized sports infrastructure, destined to be used for a few weeks before crumbling into rusted ruins that will blight the landscape for years, if not decades, to come. Yet the economic boom invariably promised by proponents of the Games has, to date, never once outweighed their cost. Meanwhile, far more urgent local and national priorities remain underfunded, sometimes in the very shadow of the lavish stadiums built at their expense.

But what’s even more depressing are the global implications of these skewed priorities. Imagine what the world would be capable of if our governments and corporations took the money they spend on the Olympics and invested it in something that actually mattered. World hunger, for instance, could be ended for just over half the cost of the Sochi Games, according to some estimates. Malaria could be eradicated globally for the cost of three Beijing Summer Olympics. Instead, the entire planet devotes its passionate attention to determining the world’s best ping pong player, while researchers are reduced to crowdfunding their search for a Zika cure. It’s absurd.

Yes, you’ll say, the same “misplaced priorities” argument can be made about just about anything, from the obscene amounts the world spends on national defense budgets, to the money (some $374 billion) we waste on snack foods. And you’d be right – but that’s the whole point. In our lifetimes, the global community – from governments and businesses to individuals – will likely have to make some profound changes to ensure a livable future. We’re facing a confluence of alarming trends, from runaway climate change and population growth to astonishing income inequality, that promise to make the status quo untenable. How long can we afford to fritter away our resources and attention on lavish public spectacles that do nothing but distract us from these issues?

I know it’s a pipe dream, but consider what would happen if, instead of spending literally thousands of hours practicing trampoline and synchronized swimming, these athletes mobilized their tremendous focus and dedication to start social enterprises. Imagine if billions of Olympics fans took the same fanatical interest in supporting social businesses that they take in following the exploits of their favorite athletes. And consider what would happen if, as the CEO of Gallup has proposed, the world were as diligent in identifying and fostering entrepreneurial talent as we are with athletic talent. Global problems wouldn’t stand a chance.

Of course, that’s about as likely as Venezuela’s basketball team taking the gold. But look on the bright side, at least we get to watch horse dancing.

– James Militzer


Counterpoint: Use the Olympics to find solutions

James, I’ve got to admit it. I don’t like the Games. I love them. And I believe they still have a singular ability to unite the world and make it a better place.

It’s easy to construct an abstract argument that “faster, higher, stronger” is a trivial pursuit. The differences between trained athletes, after all, boil down to mere inches and fractions of seconds. But that argument ignores reality: Humans have always been interested in tests of skill, dating back more than 17,000 years. You can click your heels and wish that humanity didn’t care about such foolishness, and that athletes would suddenly become entrepreneurs and fans become investors, but all you’ll get is sore heels. There’s a reason why the Olympics began and why they remain the event that brings the most humans together in common pursuit.

The Olympics aren’t perfect. They’re not even as good as they used to be. Corrupt officials have allowed the Games to become showpieces for dictators, runaway egos and inefficiency. They are, as you point out, James, huge burdens for host cities. Even the tone of the Games has changed in recent years; they’ve become corporatized to include rich and famous and already marketable athletes like golfers, tennis and basketball players, where they were once noted for giving unknown athletes their turn on the international stage – and likewise their home countries. Stories of those unpaid athletes training endlessly, dreaming of standing on a podium, representing their country with tears in their eyes … is that the “sappy manipulation” and “descent into nationalism” that’s so detestable?

By the way, it’s easy for those of us in the developed world to yawn about the Olympic spotlight. That’s part of our myopia. Our nations are ever-present and respected on the national stage. But if you think seeing your flag raised at the Olympics isn’t a big deal elsewhere, and that minor sports are ludicrous, check out the Ethiopian cheering section during an Olympic distance run during these Games.

Yes, world hunger, climate change and preventable disease are huge problems, much more important than sports. But there are many ways to address them. When we “imagine what the world would be capable of” with the proper focus, I would argue that’s exactly what the Olympics are about. They give us a reason to meet and communicate and understand each other, and while we’re at it, see exactly what humans are capable of when they put their minds to it. The trick going forward is to use the Games to further explore our capabilities.

For instance, why not use the Games as a proving ground for social enterprises that can be translated globally? It’s become obvious that each host city can’t be expected to invent Olympic-sized security measures from scratch, or economically solve temporary housing, transportation and health care needs. Let’s recognize that these issues, coincidentally, impact much of the planet – the refugee crisis comes immediately to mind – so let’s make the Olympics solutions-oriented.

These social entrepreneurs could benefit and learn from each other in a time of cooperation rather than crisis. Sharing in the spotlight of the Games, being challenged to find new ways to think of things, they just might come up with some Olympian-sized solutions.

I say the Games have not outlived their usefulness, they just need to find a path toward their highest use.

– Kyle Poplin


And now, our Tweets of the week





In case you missed it … this week on NextBillion

NexThought Monday: Can Pokemon Go Augment Global Health Reality?

In Search of the Best Health Care Innovators in the World

How to Land a $2 Million Social Venture Investment

From Dunkin’ Donuts to Farm Seeds: Discovering the Promise of Social Franchising


Photo courtesy of the Republic of Korea, via Flickr.


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