After years of preparation, discussion, scandals and graft the Rio Olympics are now consigned to the history books. For me, the coverage has been inspirational, with glimpses into the real nature of what it takes to be 'Olympic standard’. Aside of the glories of the GB position in the medal table there are moments where you understand the sacrifice and sheer bloody-mindedness that are required to even be there.
I watched a BBC interview with a rower back at home on the river Thames who, only hours after his arrival in Rio, had been struck down by a ‘flu-like’ virus that forced his withdrawal from the games, before he had the chance to pull an oar in anger.
Sitting in his boat back on the Thames he lamented that “I had spent 7 years of my life training for this, but to be honest I have already switched my focus to Tokyo”.
I find that mindset incredible. In some ways more inspirational than any of the gold medal achievements of his fellow team GBRs.
While Thomas’ story is one of freak misfortune, by and large the real foundations of the medal table position were laid before Thomas’ was even born. 23 years ago by the National Lottery Act in 1993 set in stone the fact that 28% of the money spent on lottery tickets would go to “good causes”. Most of the gold medal performances in Rio were from athletes that could afford to be full time as beneficiaries of funding from the National Lottery. UK Sport, which determines how public funds raised via the national lottery and tax are allocated to elite level sport, has pledged £347m to Olympic and Paralympic sports between 2013 and 2017.
That’s around £85m per year, or in another calculation £5.5m per medal at Rio. When you consider that the projected UK public spending in 2016-17 will be £772bn, it’s clear that the ‘Olympic commitment’ is a small one in the grand scheme of things. A key element is that it is a commitment that was made immovable because it was made into a Parliamentary Act in 1993. The distribution of the funds is brutally administered - if performance in terms of medals doesn’t reach targets on a sport by sport basis then funding is reduced or withdrawn in the next Olympic cycle.
Structurally, to me, this is perfect. A significant but not over-the-top amount of money, but immovable in terms of it’s commitment over the years. As anyone building a business knows there are long-term visions and short-term necessities. The ability to stay on course when there are short term challenges is one of the key elements of a successful business. It takes bravery and the right set of stakeholders - employees, shareholders and customers. In 1996, 3 years after the National Lottery Act, the GB team had a dismal showing at the Atlanta games. Had the structure not been right, or the commitment to a vision been incomplete the easy thing to have declared may have been “this isn’t working”.
Seth Godin’s blog at the weekend rhymes with all of this: “Marketing in four steps”:
1) Invent a thing worth making, a story worth telling, a contribution worth talking about,
2) Design and build it in a way that people will actually benefit from and care about,
3) Tell the story to the right people in the right way,
4) "the last step is often overlooked”…where you show up, regularly, consistently and generously, for years and years, to organise and lead and build confidence in the change you seek to make.
Three ticks for the British Olympic movement and to the athletes and coaches who do number 4. I ask myself: what am I, what are we doing or what are you doing day in day out to build to a long-term vision, in spite of the pervasive short-termism around us. Furthermore am I, we or you surrounding ourselves with the employees, shareholders and customers that will compel, coax and agitate us to stay on course despite the inevitable desire for quick tangible results.