Olympics 2012 : Inspiration from Champions


The Olympics is the fabulous event because each nation can find its own heros. Last night in the 400m women’s final Camille Muffat became one of France’s new heroines by taking gold. She narrowly defeated Allison Schmitt of the USA. 

Britain’s Rebecca Adlington took the bronze medal in the same race adding to her two golds in the Beijing Olympics. Last November, I posted an article about the inspiration that I had found from sources such as my own students, Howard Schultz the CEO of Starbucks and the young British swimmer.

Time to reflect once more on those thoughts.

“The opposite of ‘success’ is not ‘failure’, but ‘mediocrity’”

I am very grateful to one of my international students for sharing this wonderful quote from a New Zealand business woman. It was during a class a fortnight ago and we were discussing entrepreneurship and why only 1% of European business school graduates create their own company immediately upon graduating. One of the reasons, said some of the class members, was the obsession with competitive exams and rankings and thus the overall fear of failing. The quote makes you reassess what exactly “success” and “failure” really are.

Americans tend to deal better than other nations when it comes to such “failure”. The old saying goes than you cannot succeed in the country until you have been bankrupt at least 3 times. This is perhaps one of the reasons that they have so much confidence in starting businesses. In this context, it is practically impossible to fail so you can try almost anything. It also encourages them to throw themselves into work with a passion and emotion rarely seen in other countries. American business literature carries an almost religious fervour.

Howard Schultz and Starbucks

If you have ever been lucky enough to listen to Howard Schultz, you will become aware of the total emotion he feels when he talks about the ups and downs of the company he created, Starbucks. The pain he felt during the turbulent times in the company is more than evident. His voice will actually choke up as he answers questions.

This alignment of passion and pain can occur in fact, in many walks of life.

Rebecca Adlingtons’s passion for swimming

I remember watching an interview with the British swimmer, Rebecca Aldington, a week after her 800m Olympic Final in Beijing. She described the stomach cramps that she began to get just after the second turn during the race (bear in mind that she now had a further 14 lengths of the pool to complete).  The interviewer asked her how a swimmer managed to overcome this pain.

I was particularly interested in the question as I had experienced a similar problem while out running two days before. This was not Olympic training, you understand, rather more a guilt inspired jog after rather too many meals and good wine with friends in the past weeks. After about 50 minutes I too had experienced stomach pains (paltry no doubt to what Aldington had been going through). In the end, I had given in to them and walked the last kilometer home. Now I was about to find out how a world class professional swimmer with the scientific might of personal coaches and trainers dealt with the problem. What was her secret? What technique did she use?

The nineteen year old thought for a second and then, in her wonderful, down to earth, no nonsense Northern English accent said:

“Well, you don t really get over the pain, you just put up with it.”

Rebecca Aldington won the gold medal in that race. Just for good measure, she broke the longest standing world record which had been set when she was only 6 months old. For most of the swim she had been severing with severe pain.

Passion always involves pain

This is an amazing lesson from someone barely old enough to vote. Here was a girl living for her passion and no amount of hurt or discomfort would stop her from pursuing her dream to be Olympic Champion. The pain she felt was not an unhappy event, rather part of the experience itself. The pain was an intrinsic part of living out her passion.

Passion and analysis in business schools

Students tend to be aware of the dedication needed to succeed in their future careers. After all, they are sitting in the classroom BECAUSE they know how to work hard and quickly. They are generally less in tune with the fact that that passion may require a lot of sacrifice and some pain as well. The danger of current teaching in business schools is that we have become so obsessed with rational, analytical models that we have forgotten to tell this to the students. It is not all about data mining, emails and graphs on powerpoint presentations.

Joe Plumeri, CEO of the investment bank, Willis Inc., gives an excellent lesson on the need for a vision within a company to motivate people. This vision must be based on integrity and passion for the general mission. It is not all about research and numbers.

“You can’t Google a heart!”   he screams at anyone prepared to listen. His eyes visibly fill up as he says it.

Students, like those business leaders they crave to emulate, should try to be encouraged to pursue whatever brings them passion in their careers. If they do, they will have to endure a certain amount of discomfort, but this is part of the experience. The hardest part of the story is that embracing such passion and pain is no guarantees to success. The business world is not always tender and unlike Hollywood, it doesn’t always give us a happy ending. Surely though it is better to know that you have tried. After all, in the eyes of the New Zealand businesswoman, the real failure is giving in, abandoning your passion and choosing not to know if you could have succeeded or not. How many of us want to describe our life as being “mediocre”?

See also:

Related Blog Articles

“They’ll always be kids…”: Procter and Gamble’s 2012 Olympic TV Advert… And a message for parents of future students

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World

The 2012 Olympic Games: Managing your own talent…or trying not to give it away

As JMU goes, so go the Olympics

James Madison University: “Jeremy writes: JMU is alive and well here in London.  I have spotted more than a few JMU hats and bags around town, and JMU’s Jacob Wukie (’09) earned a silver on Saturday. Might have to try and find a ticket for the archery events on Monday and Tuesday to support Jacob!”

Mark Thomas

Grenoble EM

ESC Grenoble




Global Ed

International Affairs in Higher Education

Business School


Filed under Business Schools, France, Great Britain, Higher Education, Leadership, Sport, USA, Women in Education & Business

6 responses to “Olympics 2012 : Inspiration from Champions

  1. Many of you may have already been exposed to this story but it is one that I know touched the hearts of millions just a year ago. Anthony Robles was born with just one leg. Through work and perseverance he was able to achieve greatness and became the NCAA Division I national champion in the sport of wrestling. He was given the Jimmy V award at ESPN’s yearly award ceremony the ESPYs, and his determination inspired many. Here is the video from the award ceremony. Enjoy.

    • Mark Thomas


      Thank you for sharing this story. Anthony Robles is obviously very well known in the US, though I think a little less so outside of the States.

      I have just watched the video and it is quite an amazing story. Aside from his handicap, his personal life was extremely hard as well. The success he has made of his life is just incredible.

      It certainly makes you realise just how trivial some of your own problems are. Anthony is a great source of inspiration, indeed.

      Thank you again for sharing the story and linking in the short video.


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