JUNE 7, 2011

Every four years the American public becomes infected with the “Olympic Spirit.” In the months preceding the Games, it is impossible to watch prime time TV without seeing the endless ads and multimedia marketing campaigns by some of America’s most successful corporations. It is no surprise that these companies grasp on to what many believe to be the greatest sporting spectacular in the world.

Every night a handful of athletes are brought into the homes of millions of proud Americans. It may be the only sporting event in the world where 99% of the American population is pulling for the same team. Unfortunately, for every medalist that is interviewed by Matt Lauer on the Today Show there are five other athletes who spend the majority of their lives preparing to achieve the impossible only to fall short at the moment of reckoning. This may be seen as failure to many, but just being at the Games is beyond statistical comprehension. I have recently found a statistic that the chances of winning an Olympic gold medal are 22 million to 1. In contrast, the odds of making it as a professional athlete are 22 thousand to 1. In all honesty I was shocked by these statistics.

This week I happened to be working on a statistical analysis of past American medalist in the throwing and jumping events. I compiled data from the past three Olympic Games hoping to gain a perspective into the dynamics of what an Olympic medalist looks like in the events I coach. The data points that I examined were: the athlete’s age, their previous Olympic experience, and how they performed as a collegiate athlete. Again, I was shocked at the results. 

The data indicated on average that Olympic medals were won by a 28 year-old, who is competing in their 1st Olympic Games.  It is also surprising that college performance was not a factor in success at the Olympic Games. In fact, two athletes won medals that did not even compete in their events in college  Malcolm Gladwell , author of Outliers, immediately came to mind. Gladwell made famous the 10,000 hour rule for success. I highly recommend his book for anyone interested in diving into the bowels of success and exceptionalism.  You will begin to see that persistence may be the greatest attribute of any Olympian.

Let’s put this information to work. 

Mall VaultConsider this: an above average high school athlete gets a partial scholarship to the nearest state college. The athlete works his or her way up the ranks, earns a college degree, and finishes somewhere in the upper half of the field at the NCAA Track and Field Championships. This athlete may be currently ranked in the top 10 in the US in their event, but just isn’t quite good enough to earn a shoe contract. Graduate school is probably the best way for this 22 year old to justify staying in the sport.

The Olympic Games are only 2 years away and becoming an Olympian is a lifelong dream.  Working 20 hours a week and finishing school takes its toll, and the “Olympic Dream” is smashed as they fail to finish in the top 3 at the Olympic Trials. The journey is now over and the rest of their lives now begin. Oh wait, this only lasts for 3 weeks and the athlete now knows that giving up now shatters everything they have worked for since Jr. High. What’s another four years?  This time a move must be made and the athlete travels across the US to find a coach and a facility to take them to the next level.

Through the ups and downs, the persistent athlete climbs the ranks and earns a spot among the world’s elite. Things financially get a little better, but the culmination is the Olympic Trials. The 28-year-old athlete will have to place all the trials and tribulations of the past 15 years into 1 afternoon in June (see Kara Patterson’s blog to understand Olympic Team qualifying).  There were so many family and friends who made this moment possible and the pressure to succeed begins to build. Will the preparation and sacrifices pay off when it counts? As the sun sets on a cool Oregon night the crowd applauds as this 28 year-old's name is called over the stadium loud speaker as he steps onto the awards platform. The athlete knows the first hurdle in this journey is now complete and he will have to repeat it in 8 short weeks while wearing the red, white and blue. The final battle against the best in the world will most likely take place in a foreign country with the majority of the crowd rooting against them.

So the next time you have the privilege to watch the Olympic Games, just remember:

“The Olympic are not every four years, they are everyday.”  USOC Motto