What can we learn from the Olympics? Thoughts on excellence, friendship and respect at work

In sports, success typically means finishing first – and that is especially true at the Olympics, where winning a gold medal can often seem to mean everything. But, in fact, the Olympics aspires to much more than just sporting excellence. It also offers valuable lessons for how we should approach the idea of competition.

In 1894, a Frenchman named Baron Pierre de Coubertin set out to revive the Olympic Games, which had been dormant since 393 AD. His aim was not simply to hold an international sporting event – but rather to build bridges and foster peace between nations through sport. He went on to form the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the first Games of the modern era took place in 1896.

As a tool to codify and formalize its purpose, the IOC developed the Olympic Charter. Though it has been updated over the years, the spirit of the Charter has remained the same. It states:

“The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

Simplified, the three core values of the Olympic movement are excellence, friendship, and respect. Each was on display at the Rio Olympics, and each represents a lesson to learn from.


There are literally hundreds of examples of excellence at every Olympics, and the 2016 Rio Games were no exception. But some moments shine out from among the vivid array of athletic feats that defy expectations. At Rio, Usain Bolt again demonstrated his transcendent brilliance in the 100 and 200 meter sprint, Michael Phelps showed why he is the most decorated Olympian of all time while Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky dominated their competitors in the gymnastics and swimming. The Brazilians reacted like they had won the whole Olympics when Neymar kicked the final penalty to win the football gold and the Fijians did the same when their sevens rugby team beat the British to win their first gold medal ever. So what was it about these winners that made them stand-out?

Preparation is at the top of the list, among other key elements. Undoubtedly, all Olympians are physically gifted, but the other attribute that they share in common is an entirely different level of preparation. Each individual athlete is completely dedicated to getting better each day at even the most minute aspect of their sport. The same can be said about how the best teams prepare. Working harder than everyone else on teamwork and strategy can make that crucial difference.

Lesson 1: Excellence is as much determined by preparation as talent. Make sure you and your team are completely dedicated to improving your performance, every day.


In track & field, the women’s 5,000m witnessed one of the most dramatic events of the games. New Zealander Nikki Hamblin and American Abbey D’Agostino both stumbled during the race. D’Agostino helped Hamblin to her feet and urged her to carry on with the race. But when D’Agostino herself collapsed in agony (she had severely damaged her knee ligaments in the fall), Hamblin stayed by her side and encouraged her not to give up. Eventually, both competitors finished the race, but it was the tremendous sportsmanship that the competitors showed each other that endures. Following the games, the IOC awarded the pair the prestigious Pierre de Coubertin medal (also known as the International Fair Play Committee Award), which has only been awarded 17 times in Olympic history.

Lesson 2: Sometimes there are more important things than winning. Is your business also helping others in need, even if it means sometimes sacrificing your own success? If so, you might find unexpected rewards await.


For the first time in Olympic history, the IOC formed a team of refugee athletes to compete at the games. As refugees, these individuals have fled from countries where they were not respected, but persecuted. While they may not have been medal contenders, they competed with dignity and demonstrated that they deserve to be treated equally and with respect, like all their fellow competitors.

Lesson 3: Everyone deserves to be treated equally, fairly and with respect. Be aware of how you can combat even unconscious bias to give every individual’s merits the chance to shine.


The 2016 Olympics have come to a close and the Paralympics are about to begin, but the legacy of the Games will continue to inspire us to be better individuals and run better businesses.

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