5 Ways Business Is Like Olympics, and 4 Ways I’m Glad it Isn’t.

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying watching the Winter Olympics. The Olympic athletes are amazing. And not just the winners. The ones who finish way back in the pack are amazing, too. There’s only one sport in there that I know fairly well: skiing. I’ve been skiing since I was five, and I lived in Innsbruck for a year in college, broke some bones doing it as a teenager, and some said I was pretty good at it when I was young. And I still ski, even fast sometimes, at 62. But I am only good enough to sit back in awe at what I’ve been watching these last few nights on the Olympics.

First, 5 Ways Business is Like the Olympics

  1. Metrics. Olympic athletes live and breathe metrics, minutes and seconds, meters and feet, with tons of statistics on performances.
  2. Return on investment. Sure, there are phenomenal athletes who perform above all normal levels because of born talents, but it seems to me that luck in the Olympics is a result of hard work, not rolling dice. As in business, the harder you work, the luckier you get.
  3. Planning pays off. And not because planning predicts the future, either, but rather – and much like business planning – because it sets goals and steps and interdependencies into manageable pieces. As with business, there is always the difference between plan and actual, and that’s what people manage.
  4. Visualizing improves performance. Dreaming about what the business can look like helps you move it in the right direction, and, eventually, make progress. Visualizing athletic moves helps you get there.
  5. It’s about focus. You can’t do everything. Bode Miller doesn’t have to do ice dancing, and Apolo Ono doesn’t have to face the Canadian hockey team. You specialize in doing some things really well and, at least in some sports, get team members to do other things. One player pushes the granite rock over the ice, and other players sweep around it.

Then 4 Ways I’m glad that Business Isn’t Like the Olympics.

  1. Olympics require four years of training for as little as a minute or two of performance. Can you imagine? Is there a way to relate that to business? Yesterday doesn’t matter at all in the Olympics; but, and thank heavens for this, yesterday does matter in business.
  2. Olympics separate winners from losers for tiny differences in performance. Sometimes hundredths of a second. In alpine skiing, you have dozens of people who ski huge icy slopes within a couple seconds of the winning time and don’t even show up in the television coverage.
  3. Olympics have only one winner per event. Okay, maybe three, depending on how one feels about silver and bronze medals. But to watch, say, the women’s downhill, where it seemed like a third of them crashed on very hard ice at very high speeds, how can any of them who finished that course not get a medal? Reminds me of my years coaching kids’ soccer, where we’d get trophies for everybody.
  4. Many Olympic athletes wear skin-tight suits. Bad enough that I have to wear an actual suit and tie two or three times per year. At least in the software business we’re allowed to be comfortable most of the time.

And one final note: This post started out as 5 ways and 5 ways, not 5 and 4. But the fifth in the second list was attempting to make fun of speed and danger. Then I remembered Nodar Kumaritashvili, a Georgian luge slider competing at the Vancouver Olympics, who died after crashing during a training run and hitting a metal pole. He was 21. May he rest in peace. And may Olympics never be that dangerous again. There’s nothing at all funny about that.


  • Daria Steigman says:

    I’m laughing at the visualization of Bode Miller ice dancing… You’ve made a great analogy to remind everyone that business is hard work, and takes planning, patience, and time. But the payoff is pretty cool.

    I’d add one more way business is like the Olympics: you have to believe in yourself. An example: aerialist Jeret “Speedy” Peterson, who lost out on a medal four years ago when he failed to stick the landing after his signature “hurricane” maneuver; he did it again this time and won a silver medal.

  • Dave Van de Walle says:

    Great post!

    There was a study awhile back that has always stuck with me: Gold medal winners are of course thrilled after the games. But Bronze medalists are happier after the fact than Silver medalists.

    The theory goes that the response for the Silver medalists is something akin to “if I had only shaved another 0:00.01 off of my time!” And the Bronze medalist says “wow, I got to be on the podium instead of going home empty-handed.”

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