Olympic Games bring out the best in all of us. Athletes from across the world set aside national differences and reconvene to honor the pursuit of excellence. To stand shoulder-to-shoulder as the world’s best, each hoping to take center stage on behalf of their nation – 16 days during which anthems and admiration stream across the world. Two special weeks, when nations hit the pause button on their geopolitical “saber rattling” and international spectators sit side-by-side to cheer for their own and relish athletic elegance, regardless of personal allegiance.
To be an “Olympian” is to be an exception, an outlier. Surely some of it is “nature” and the mosaic of genes handed out (and down) by lottery. We know that “nurture,” behavior, life choices and resilient attitudes that are leaned against everyday also play an important role. And perhaps above it all, is the “self-sacrifice” that must be blended into the Darwinian selection process of being exceptional – only those that have the “grit” to truly endure need apply.
For many Olympic athletes, a life of commitment, endurance, practice, injury and repair come down to the final second. These are the sports that we call events “of flight.” Perhaps it is the forward, backward, reverse, inward, twisting or armstand take-offs, combined with straight, pike, and the final tuck of platform diving. Or the layout (or “lay”), loop, pike, puck, pop, quad or slap-backs of aerial ski jumping. Or the handspring, somersault, cartwheel, round-off, walkover, yurchenko or tsukaharas of gymnastics. Regardless of the string of moves–the rotation, the angle, the height or the speed–in these events history (and scores) are written on the very final moment. Was there a splash, a bobble, a need to take an extra step? Regardless of all the practices, all the moves that had just been perfectly (or not) executed, the key determinant instantly becomes, did they “stick the landing?” Everything hinges on the athlete’s ability to remain utterly focused to the terminal moment.
The odds of being an “Olympian” can be extreme, ranging from 1:1.3 million in the US to 1:16.5 million in China (e.g. team rosters of 242 vs 82 sent in Feb. 2018). Whereas in other countries, the odds can seem comparatively favorable 1:12,640 (Liechtenstein; 3 athletes in 2018 from a dainty country population of 37,922). When competing for a slot on the country roster, most often the outcome resides solely on the individual, but in some events “a group” or a team of athletes must win together to get in. Teams comprised of elite individuals for sure, but nonetheless their eventual success will depend on their ability to transcend the “individual” and perform as an elite “team.”
Few Olympic team events require the inter-personal precision of the 4×100 meter relay. An iconic track and field event always comprised of the world’s fastest sprinters. Combining their cheetah-like speed into four consecutive 100-meter sprints, inter-connected by four perilous baton exchanges. Effective baton exchanges in track relay races are always a key determinant of success but the speed involved in the 4×100 takes the hand-off complexity to another level. In one of the more historic moments of the event, the star studded 2016 US Women’s track team competing in the Rio summer games dropped the baton at the third hand-off in the semi’s. It was a jarring reminder of similar mishaps that had kept top-ranked US teams from the podium in 2004 and again in 2008 Olympic games. But video replay confirmed that a lane violation had occurred just before the exchange in which the American runner had been bumped by the adjacent Brazilian. What happened next was unprecedented. Returning back to the track 7 ½ hours after they had left it, the US team lined-up in the same lane as they had run in earlier in the day. But this time, all alone. Just them and the eyes of the world. Their only goal was to beat China’s eighth-place time of 42.70 seconds. Four flawless transitions (and 41.77 seconds) later, the US team huddled at the finish line by themselves in the near dark, having earned a spot in the finals. One day later, they again executed each transition with perfection to take the 2016 4×100 meter Gold. A historic example of recovery, refocus and execution.
While we huddle again to watch the world’s best, they can serve as a useful reminder for the races we (mere mortals) run and challenges we seek to overcome in our lives. Regardless of how hard we try or well-intentioned we are, our history’s will also be written by the effectiveness of our transitions. Did we stay focused, fully present in the moment, until the very end – did we “stick the landing,” and deliver the full promise of all that preceded it. As we breathlessly sprinted to our finish line, did we provide the “perfect hand-off” for those that will be required to continue forward building upon our contributions. Our history and our “medals” are also determined in these special moments.
“Our beginnings know not where our endings be” W. Shakespeare
The timeless quote of Shakespeare “our beginnings know not where our endings be” is the rallying cry of innovators and entrepreneurs everywhere; but let us never forget that each instance, how we personally handle “endings,” is perhaps the most important skill of them all.