Sunday, July 22, 2012

Can Business Learn from the Olympics?

With the Olympic Games starting in London on 27th July, what can business learn (if anything) from this prestigious event? The Olympic creed states that “the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well." Where there is a strong correlation between a highly competitive environment and a desire to win, along with a mutual respect for ones competitors and a credo of sportsmanship.

But what is sportsmanship and could it be practiced in business? Some people define good sportsmanship as the "golden rule" of sports - in other words, treating the people you play with and against as you'd like to be treated yourself. You demonstrate good sportsmanship when you show respect for yourself, your teammates, and your opponents, for the coaches on both sides, and for the referees, judges, and other officials.

But sportsmanship isn't just reserved for the people on the field. Cheerleaders, fans, and parents also need to be aware of how they behave during competition. Sportsmanship is a style and an attitude, and it can have a positive influence on everyone around you.

There are very many poignant moments that have occurred through the life of the Olympics that we can learn from, but here is one you may not know of, that says so much about us as people and strength of character. Momo Walde won the marathon gold in the high altitude of Mexico City in 1968. One hour later, a little known Tanzanian runner, John Stephen Akhwari entered the Olympic stadium – the last man to do so. Injured after a fall and carrying a dislocated knee, he hobbled up to the track for one last surge to the finish. He then retired to a thunderous applause by a small crowd which was lucky enough to get a glimpse of this gallant champion. It was later written of his perseverance, ‘today we have witnessed a young African runner who symbolizes the finest in the human spirit - a performance that gives true dignity to sport – a performance which lifts sports out of the category of grown men playing in games.’ But Akhwari was far more modest. When asked why he did not quit, he replied, “my country did not send me 5000 miles to start the race. They sent me 5000 miles to finish the race.”

Everyone feels great when they win, but it can be just as hard to be a good sport when you've won a game as when you've lost one. Good sportsmanship takes maturity and courage, when you work really hard at a sport, it's not easy to admit you made a bad play or that someone has more skills than you. In competition, as in life, you may not always win but you can learn something from losing, too.

Not all sports are team sports, but the rules of sportsmanship and character still apply. One may think that business is always a team ‘sport’- but that’s not true. In the last decade there has been an ‘explosion’ of one-person businesses being set up around the globe, from Internet based ‘companies’ based in bedrooms and garages, to business and life coaches, consultants, plumbers, electricians, and the list goes on.

Often for the ‘self-employed’ one-man-band the connection with the emotions of the ‘long-distance runner’ are all too real. Where only those ‘runners’ with real determination, a burning desire to succeed and the ability to ‘pace themselves’ even when other ‘athletes’ go zooming by, are those that actually reach the finish line.

Maybe what’s really interesting about sportsmanship is that good sportsmanship means not having a ‘win at any cost’ attitude. Most athletes who don't have a ‘win at any cost’ attitude are more likely to talk about how much they love their sport and how much personal satisfaction and enjoyment they get from participation. Maybe with the constant revelations of corporate scandals business can learn something from sport and the Olympics.

So I’ll end this article with two simple quotes; "I didn't set out to beat the world; I just set out to do my absolute best," - Al Oerter (the first athlete ever to win four gold medals at four consecutive Olympics); and “Although they only give gold medals in the field of sports, I encourage everyone to look into themselves and find their own personal dream, whatever that may be, sports, medicine, engineering, teaching, whatever. The same principles apply.” – Anonymous.

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