Does the Olympic vision lack value?

The Rio sun set on the 2016 Olympics. In doing so, it drew to a close a bloated extravaganza incorporating numerous events that would severely test many people’s definition of “sport”. It seemed clearer than ever that the Games were suffering from a problem familiar to businesses the world over. Maintaining quality in the face of continued growth isn’t easy and the Olympic spirit is no longer the goal to strive for.

The trouble is that expansion often brings dilution. That’s why for many sports the “greatest show on Earth” tagline which implies a unique Olympic spirit just doesn’t ring true. Rory McIlroy made this abundantly clear when he declined to compete in the golf restored to the Olympic Games after an absence of 112 years. Rory declared he would instead devote himself to watching “the stuff that matters”.

In golf, after all, the greatest shows on Earth are the four major championships and the Ryder Cup. Golf is the only game in town when these events take place. There’s no need to compete with beach volleyball or synchronised swimming or water polo. As with tennis, an Olympic medal might serve as a cherry. But it’s certainly no cake.

Professional sports are businesses

Part of the problem is that some professional sports are nowadays genuine businesses – and businesses will always make a cost/benefit analysis before they invest in anything. They react to the market. They believe in supply and demand. It takes significant prizes and substantial exposure to pique their interest. Players ultimately depend on a share of the gate for their income. This requires bums on seats. Too many seats went unwarmed in Rio.

Something similar is happening in football. Euro 2016’s enlarged format may have given fans of the “minor” nations something to cheer about, but the overall standard of play suffered. Too many teams were content to settle for a draw in the group stage or penalties in the knockout phases. It was a classic case of “more is less”. And the unabashed self-interest of top-level football clubs, whose aspirations seldom coincide with those of national organisations, echoes another of McIlroy’s most candid sentiments: “I didn’t get into this to grow the game.”

The secret of innovation

What appears to have been forgotten is that one of the secrets of innovation is alignment. This is so for any organisation. To grow sustainably, to expand without diluting, it’s necessary to bring value to as many interested parties as possible. Seemingly disconnected elements need to have a common goal. It’s an alignment that mega-events such as the Rio Olympics and Euro 2016 conspicuously lack, and it’s not inconceivable to imagine them completely falling apart if they continue along their present paths.

So has any sport, championship or tournament managed to get the balance right? Ironically, one of the most compelling candidates has been tainted by money from the outset and is universally renowned for being utterly unforgiving and ruthless: the Tour de France.

The Tour de France

The Tour has certainly known controversy in recent years, with the Lance Armstrong saga foremost among a series of scandals. But it has bounced back in style, not only growing but actually improving.

A key reason for its renewed success – and this goes back to the importance of alignment – is that there’s room for more than one victor. There is, of course, an overall champion, but it’s not a “winner takes all” affair. Many riders get to wear the yellow, green, white and spotted jerseys during the three weeks of the race. There are daily awards for the best team performance and for the most aggressive rider. In short, there’s always something to play for.

Interestingly, one of the principal figures in the Tour’s revival was essentially forced to turn his back on the Olympics because he was too successful. Sir David Brailsford, the inaugurator of the system of marginal gains and continuous development, so transformed the fortunes of British Cycling that the rules had to be changed to give everyone else a chance. His brilliantly strategic stewardship of Team Sky since his move to road cycling has offered a magnificent illustration of the sentiment famously expressed by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern-day Games: “The most important thing is not winning but taking part.”

Positive performance

This ideal is particularly evident on the final day of the Tour when a remarkable number of the surviving competitors are able to reflect on a positive performance as they pedal down the Champs-Élysées. They know they’ve played a part, even if for the greater good rather than for individual glory. Also, they understand about meeting triumph and disaster and all that other stuff. They show that competition and cooperative buy-in can co-exist.

What would the average business give for a similarly contented workforce? Delivering on every level for sponsors and spectators alike – that’s real social capital. If sport can teach us anything about growth and sustainability, this is where we should be looking, not in a traditional concept of an unrealistic Olympic spirit.

Paul Kirkham is a researcher in the field of entrepreneurial creativity with Nottingham University Business School and co-deviser of the Ingenuity problem-solving process taught to students at its Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (HGIIE).

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Nottingham University Business School specialises in developing leadership potential, encouraging innovation and enterprise, and developing a global outlook in its students, partners, and faculty. It is recognised as one of the world’s top business schools for integrating responsible and sustainable business issues into its undergraduate, MBA, MSc, PhD, and executive programmes and has unrivalled global reach through Nottingham’s campuses in the UK, China, and Malaysia. The School holds a Small Business Charter Award in recognition of its important role in supporting small and medium enterprises. It is accredited by both the Association of MBAs (AMBA) and the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) and ranks among the UK’s top ten for research power.