Olympic glory: An arduous road

sportingworldblockDid you hear the one about the guy who got into the Olympic spirit so much that he tried to swim the Atlantic Ocean? True story. The unnamed man attempted to swim 3,600 miles from France to New York in July 2012. He made it one or two miles before lifeguards picked him up. One or two miles is still quite an effort, but a two-mile swim is only .0006 per cent of the required distance to swim the Atlantic.

While that swimmer went to a ridiculous extreme, many people watch the Games then set out to achieve athletic and individual goals as a result. And that’s awesome. But, as you start to become a better swimmer, lose weight, get stronger, or actually train for the Olympics, the key thing to remember is this: Gold medals don’t just happen.

You won’t wake up a week after you started training and suddenly run a sub-10-second 100 metres. Your fifth 200-metre swim isn’t going to make Michael Phelps shake to his core with fear.

The likes of Michael Phelps achieved Olympic excellence through monumental sacrifice and effort.
The likes of Michael Phelps achieved Olympic excellence through monumental sacrifice and effort.

That takes years, even decades of practice, with hours and hours of time in the gym, the pool, or on the field. In Outliers, The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell famously created the “10,000 hour rule” –– the belief that becoming a success in any field requires practising a specific task for 10,000 hours.

And that’s what a lot of Olympic athletes have done. They’ve made sacrifices, both incredible and not so smart (like going thousands and thousands of dollars in debt) to achieve something that few people on earth can call themselves: Olympians.

In athletics, as in life and business, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. As such, it might just behoove us to take a look at what these athletes do and how they do it and take a page out of their book. And because what they do is so remarkable, let’s take a look at how they become remarkable.

Almost every one of these athletes started out at a young age with their sport. Then they found they were passionate about it, and also were very good at it, and then they began to put in the time necessary to become great at it. But it begins with following their passion. So, too, in business, so, too, in entrepreneurship, so too in life really.

It is hard to imagine becoming a world-class anything unless you really loved that thing.

That these athletes put in an incredible amount of time preparing for their moment at the Olympics is obvious. In the book Outliers, The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell writes: “To become a grandmaster also seems to take about ten years. (Only the legendary Bobby Fischer got to that elite level in less than that amount of time: it took him nine years.) And what’s ten years? Well, it’s roughly how long it takes to put in 10,000 hours of hard practice. Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.”

Gladwell argues that to really excel at something –– be it sports or chess or business –– requires a commitment of that many hours and many years. Certainly we see that in most Olympians.

Loving the destination, yes, but also the journey is probably one of the most integral parts of the formula. For me, it was difficult to appreciate what Michael Phelps did until I began to watch the other athletes, the ones who were overjoyed at winning a single bronze medal for instance. For them, that is the pinnacle of success in their sport, and rightly so. What Phelps did is almost otherworldly.

But I think we can also assume that for almost all of these athletes, while winning is great, the journey probably is as well. Sure, it is hard work, but we all work hard. And you can only be willing to work that hard if getting there stokes your fire.

Needless to say, Olympic athletes compete, not only against themselves, but against the competition. And you don’t get to be the best unless the competition, and your competitive juices, take your game to another level.

Yes and after all this it’s right back to the almighty dollar.

Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be Olympians. It may not have the ring of the original Willie Nelson/Waylon Jennings song title, but it certainly applies – considering some of the financial back-stories at the London Olympics.

“Thank God my parents really liked me,” says former American speed skater Eric Flaim, a two-time Olympic silver medallist who’s now a financial adviser with Ameriprise, his estimate of what his Olympic run cost over a decade-plus of training and active competing? At least US$250,000. Like many Olympians, Flaim describes plenty of tough times, when he and his parents faced having to pay for big-ticket items (say, a pair of custom-molded boots for $1,500) or ongoing expenses (private coaching could run up to five grand annually).

Even with a medal around his neck –– he won his first at the 1988 winter games in Calgary –– life didn’t become particularly easy. Flaim says in his best years as an athlete, he might have earned $75,000 from prizes, honorarium and sponsorships. “It was not million-dollar money,” he adds. But at least he made money.

Athletes who aren’t seen as strong medal contenders are less likely to receive significant support from their sponsors, let alone their sport’s governing board. And if they’re competing in a less-heralded sport, the problems are compounded. We don’t have to look any further than our shores to see the disparity in how some sports are treated as opposed to others that may not be more popular even if they are more successful.

Indeed, experts say raising an Olympian –– or seeking Olympic glory on one’s own –– is an extremely pricey proposition, especially when measured over the period of years it takes to get to and then compete at the games. At best, say athletes and others connected to the Olympics, it’s easily a six-figure “investment” –– with no guarantee of a “return” (meaning a medal or an endorsement deal) –– when factoring in the costs of equipment, coaching and travel.

Making the situation all the more difficult for most athletes there’s no direct support, as is the case in most nations. Instead, top-tier competitors can only hope to receive small stipends –– often as little as US$400 a month –– to cover expenses, with the money generally coming from the privately funded governing boards of their sports or through sponsorships. And those who are just starting their Olympic careers can’t even be guaranteed that level of assistance, so they often take on this mammoth task with only the “Bank of Mom and Dad” to rely upon.

But it is not all doom and gloom.

For those with the spark and the perseverance I am sure there can be no greater feeling to take that step up, be it the one foot –– the two feet  –– or the three feet, which raises you, your coaches, your family, your friends, your sport and your country onto that podium for the whole world to see on the greatest stage there is to be had.

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