Hats off to the Olympic champions. Competitors like Usain Bolt, Gabby Douglas, and Michael Phelps inspire us. They reawaken our dreams. We admire their talent, dedication, and sheer grit. We revel with them in their gold.
But let’s look deeper to the faces behind the gold—all the people who made it possible for these champions to stand atop the podium.
We tend to focus only on the athlete. It’s hero fixation. In thoroughbred racing, we focus only on the horse (as opposed to the jockey, trainer, owner, and whole racing team). In business, only the CEO. But across all these domains, excellence is a group performance.
Excellence is a group performance.
The Lightning Bolt. Usain Bolt, the electric and transcendent Jamaican sprinter, is a textbook example of succeeding on talent and size alone, right? Think again.
Bolt grew up in a small town playing street cricket with his brother, Sadeeki. His school cricket coach noticed Bolt’s blazing speed and encouraged him to try track and field.
Coach Pablo McNeil (a former Olympic sprinter) became his primary coach and became frustrated at times by Bolt’s lack of dedication. Bolt’s practical jokes were legendary. At the CARIFTA trials, he was detained by police for hiding in a van when he was supposed to be preparing for the 200 meter finals.
Bolt didn’t appear destined for success. At the World Junior Championships, he was so nervous that he put his shoes on the wrong feet for the race. His coaches had to work with him on his nerves, starts, diet, and more. As he rose to prominence, he became increasingly distracted by the trappings of success and fame, drawn to the Kingston nightclubs, basketball courts, and fast food joints instead of the track.
His new coach, Glen Miller, and his manager, Norman Peart, worked with him on his training regimen, nerves, and confidence. With his goals in sight and team in place, Bolt avoided the trappings of steroids and the BALCO scandal that snared other runners and athletes.
Yes, let’s gape in sheer awe at a man who averages almost 24 m.p.h. on the track during the 100-meter race. But let’s also tip our hats to the team that got him there.
The Flying Squirrel. Gabby Douglas is the first American gymnast in history to win both individual and team all-around gold medals at the same Olympics.
It was her older sister, Arielle, who convinced their mother to enroll Gabby in gymnastics classes when she was six. Her coach, Dena Walker, had the wisdom and grace to recognize that Douglas had so much potential that she needed better coaching. Walker invited legendary coach Liang Chow (former coach of Olympic gold winner, Shawn Johnson) to teach at their gym. Not long after, Gabby—at age fourteen—was living with a host family thousands of miles away in Iowa, training with Chow. Hats off not only to Douglas but also to her family, host family, Walker, Chow, and teammates McKayla, Aly, Kyla, and Jordyn (among others).
The Flying Fish. American swimmer Michael Phelps is now the most decorated Olympian of all time. Go ahead and count them: 22 medals.
That’s a lot of hardware.
Phelps is a machine with a wide wing span who has trained incredibly hard for, well, most of his life.
Did you know that his sisters influenced him to start swimming at age seven, when he had more energy than he knew what to do with? In sixth grade, he was diagnosed with ADHD and had to learn how to manage that with the support of family and teachers.
Phelps’s coach, Bob Bowman, has been with him since he was eleven. Phelps says Bowman is like a drill sergeant.
“Training with Bob is the smartest thing I’ve ever done.”
-U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps
With influences like that in his life, Phelps was able to bounce back from setbacks and mistakes, like an arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol at age nineteen and being photographed for smoking a marijuana pipe in 2009, resulting in a suspension from swimming and loss of a sponsor.
Phelps is a workhorse and fierce competitor, but he has also ridden waves of support from family, coach, trainer, and teammates like Ryan Lochte and others, training and competing alongside him and eliciting his best.
The Blade Runner. South African 400-meter runner Oscar Pistorius is the first double-leg amputee ever to participate in the Olympics. His legs were amputated below the knee when he was eleven months old. Growing up, he played rugby, water polo, tennis, and wrestling. Today, he runs with carbon-fiber prosthetics made by an Icelandic company called Össur.
Pistorius credits his mother’s influence on his life (she died when he was fifteen). When he runs, he does so with the help of a long list of people: his mom, friends, classmates, teammates, coaches, trainers, and pioneering designers who make his running possible.
Hope of a Nation. We take for granted that Olympic athletes bask in the adulation of their homelands.
Not so with Afghan sprinter Tahmina Kohistani, who endures scorn, heckling, and admonishment back home for challenging tradition and accepted notions about women and their “rightful” place in society.
She risks not only scorn but perhaps also her life for running.
As Kathleen Parker pointed out in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “as recently as last month the Taliban executed a woman for being accused of adultery.”
“I will continue. Someone should respond this way.”
-Afghan sprinter Tahmina Kohistani
In London, Kohistani ran for much more than glory, and many have bravely stood beside her in her quest.
Bolt. Douglas. Phelps. Pistorius. Kohistani. Olympic athletes and champions—racing for gold and inspiring millions.
But it’s not just about the athletes and their sublime talent, ripped muscles, supernatural performances, advanced training, and rock-solid work ethic.
It’s also about a host of people—parents, coaches, trainers, mentors, friends, teammates, and more—who help them do what they do, rise to the pinnacle of performance, and endure and overcome pressure, fatigue, fear, adversity, and doubt. (Those people can also help these athletes figure out what comes next in their lives—how they can share these and other gifts with the world.)
When the national anthems play and the flags rise, look not only to the medals around their necks but also to the faces behind the gold. Let’s recognize the people who helped give them the chance.
Even in individual events, it’s really a group performance.
Bob and Gregg Vanourek are authors of the new book, Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (McGraw-Hill). Web: https://triplecrownleadership.com/ Twitter: @TripleCrownLead