Gaming the Games

August 5, 2012

I suspect you were outraged when three badminton teams were disqualified from competing in the Olympics after they intentionally lost their matches in order to get a better position in later rounds. After all, the Olympics are supposed to be about sportsmanship, fair play, trust, and honor. It makes an interesting analysis why intelligent young athletes, who have trained countless hours and sacrificed years of time to be the very best in their chosen sport, would risk losing the ability to compete in order to gain an illicit position advantage.

At every Olympics, there are scandals where athletes find some loophole to exploit in their quest to be called the best. The irony is that when they wake up in the morning, they have to live with themselves, knowing the cost of their victory was the very thing that made them losers. How pitiful; they managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. They tarnish their medals.

The problem is that we give the people who cheat and get caught suspensions, but we give the people who cheat and don’t get caught medals. I am not saying that all athletes cheat; far from it. I honestly believe that the vast majority of participants do play by the rules. It would be interesting if we could ever determine the exact percentage of honest competitors who would rather play the rules and lose than find a way to cheat and win.

One could argue that the people who cheat are from countries who have a political need to always be the best, regardless of the tactics. Their warped sense of supremacy gives the games a political intrigue that is unhealthy, but always present. While national pressures can be one cause for the rot, I believe there are individuals from any country that would game the games if given the opportunity.

I believe the real culprit is the pressure to win, which is ironic because that is the core reason for the Olympics in the first place. Playing by the rules involves making thousands of hard choices over years of time. The burning desire to be called the best drives athletes to walk up to the point of doing inappropriate things but never cross that fine line.

That conundrum appears to be a bigger challenge than to swim faster than any other human being alive. To take advantage of every training aid and legitimate nourishment regime but never go one micrometer beyond is pressure of a different sort. For those athletes who do not compromise their integrity, I think there should be a medal of trust. They have earned it, and when they wake up, they have the joy of knowing they competed at the highest level whether they won or lost. They are the true winners.

We cannot ever tell who cheats just a little bit in some rule of competition. That would be impossible. Rather, we have to rely on the forces within individuals to drive most athletes to take the high road and snatch personal victory from the jaws of defeat.

Olympic Story of Trust

October 23, 2011

I was a Division Manager for Eastman Kodak when a strange request came in from the Olympics. Responding to this impossible challenge involved having total trust in the system and team, to allow them to break every rule in the book and put out a new product in less than three days.

On a Tuesday morning in 1992, one of the product planners got a call from a customer in Albertville, France. The Winter Olympics was starting to wind down, and this customer from Sports Illustrated had a challenge for us. He noticed that there were colored Olympic rings embedded in the ice of the figure skating venue. His idea was to climb up into the rafters and take images looking directly down on the skaters in the Woman’s Singles Finals on Saturday night with the rings in the background. He needed some special equipment in a format we did not sell.

The accelerated cycle time to get a new product like that to the market was 9-12 months in order to develop the process, get the hardware approved, establish the specs, create the packaging, etc. The problem was that we had to ship the product on Friday morning to be sure it would get to Albertville in time. That meant we had to get everything done in less than three days rather than a year. Talk about a scramble!

The team assigned the task of getting this product out had a blast breaking all kinds of rules in order to make the impossible deadline. In the end, the customer had what he needed, and the next issue of Sports illustrated had an image of Kristie Yamaguchi winning the Gold Medal while she was literally flying over the Olympic rings embedded in the ice.

The Business Unit was so thrilled that they presented the Department with a framed copy of the image signed by Kristie Yamaguchi. When the business unit came to the factory to deliver a personally signed copy of the image, it was an electric moment for the workers. That framed picture hung in a place of honor to remind the team that the impossible is really possible if trust in the team is there. It is truly amazing what a turned-on team of workers can accomplish.