What Communities Can Learn from The Olympics

Communities Learning From the Olympics

Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of a good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.

 - Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the Olympics

I believe that I am a better strategist and tactician for BraveNew and our knowledge sharing communities by examining the role of online and offline communities in multiple areas. My awareness of the potential of our communities is sharpened by seeing how other communities foster collaboration and yield new ways of looking at issues in multiple disciplines. Last month, I turned my focus to the role of community in sports. 

Not just any sport but the Olympics and its most recent edition, the Summer Games of Rio. Prior to the games, there was plenty of negative coverage on all the potential ills, real and imagined, that might befall the event. But, as has happened before (see: Sochi, London, Salt Lake), once the inspirational marathoner Vanderlei de Lima lit the torch, the criticism (give or take a Ryan Lochte) became muted. 

Why? Well, Pierre de Coubertin, the modern Olympics founder, stressed again and again “the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking the part.” And I would argue that it’s not just the athletes but also all of us who take part in the Olympics. It’s harder to criticize a community that you belong to, no matter for how long. 

Communities in multiple forms, large and small, are on display during the two weeks. In terms of the largest community, an estimated 3.6 billion people, half of the world’s population, watched at least one minute of the Olympics. And that was just on traditional TV. Contained within those minutes, broadcasts and streams are the shared moments: Gisele sashaying, Michael Phelps swimming, Usain Bolt running.  Part of the thrill of the experience is knowing that billions of others are partaking in it as well.

As for the smaller communities, there are so many and so many types. If you’re a competitor you’re a member of several: athletic, country, sport.  The overall athletic community numbered 11, 303 from 205 nations in 42 sports. Most community activity centered on the Olympic Village, the two-week home for most competitors.  Athletes were required to wear their team sweatsuits at all times to easily identify them. Alexi Pappas, a Greek runner in Rio, shared her observations on the community of the village in a New York Times blog.  Her team’s building also housed athletes from Croatia, Algeria and Ethiopia. One day she observed a table tennis player, a rower and a swimmer working side by side. She learned about double canoeing, a sport that ended its Olympic run in Rio, from a Cuban. Engaging, sharing, learning: all hallmarks of the best communities. 

Beyond athletes and their communities, there were multiple other categories stakeholders: officials, corporate sponsors, spectators, coaches, broadcasters, social media producers. All intersected not only with the finest athletes of the world but also with those in their respective professions and disciplines. For example, EY had a team of 300 working on a number of projects in tandem with the Olympics. Their “Women Athletes Business Network” initiative leverages the potential of elite female athletes and was involved in hiring women from the Games. The “Rio Legacy Volunteer Program” focused on education, development and transition for people around the world. In his blog for Forbes titled “The Real Winners of Rio: The Global Community,” EY CEO Mark Weinberger shared “what I love above all about the Olympics is that they function as a celebration of the connections that unite the global community.”

I had my own Olympic experience twenty years ago at the Summer Games in Atlanta, and I had the opportunity to witness this sense of community first hand. As I worked in sports television, I was fortunate to have excellent access to many events. Yet, after my first event, I didn’t quite “get” the magic of the Olympics. I attended an early round of men’s weightlifting, and it seemed like other non-Olympic sports events. I handed over my ticket, I went in, the event started. It was held in the basement of the convention center (I’ve been to trade shows there since) and it almost seemed…mundane.

But as the days moved on, the sense of community and of being part of something larger, crept in. I met corporate marketers for multiple brands and learned about which sport matched up best to which product. I kept going to different events and seeing excellence again and again. I attended the Men’s 100 meter in track, the women’s javelin, men’s platform diving. But it was my final event that elevated the two weeks to a “once in a lifetime” transformational experience. 

With a friend, I attended the final of men’s freestyle wrestling. There were about seven or eight different weight classes, which translated to seven or eight final matches and subsequent medal ceremonies. No one country dominated. So we heard seven or eight different national anthems with fans cheering in the native language. I had never felt such emotion at home watching the Olympics before and I haven’t since. One of the countries in the finals was Estonia, several proud years into statehood. Sitting near me was an Estonian TV crew. They didn’t speak English very well, and I don’t speak Estonian at all. But we exchanged Olympic pins (I gave them a CNN pin for one with the Estonian flag) and we talked about the difference-the vast difference between TV sports in Estonia and the US. As I learned something meaningful about sports production in other countries and about the pride Estonians had in their reclaimed country, my global viewpoint expanded. Several years later, in part due to that encounter, I made it a point to visit Estonia and that part of the world. 

The thrill of being engaged in a community as large as a global audience of 3.7 billion or as small as the Estonian wrestling fan and reporting base underscore the best communities can do on or offline, in the professional world or beyond.  The spirit of de Courbtin lives on.