It was one of those truly remarkable 2016 Olympic moments in Rio. Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, Olympic gold medalist, sprinted across the finish line first in the 200m semi-final, with Canada’s Andre DeGrasse right at his side. Finish times in the heat: Bolt, 19.78 seconds; DeGrasse, 19.80. Two one-hundredths of a second.
The best part? Both runners’ reactions to DeGrasse’s competitive burst at the end of the heat.
Bolt cocked his head and wagged his finger at the young sprinter, who cheekily stormed into the finish beside Bolt, both runners grinning, laughing and fully enjoying what was a purely competitive moment. The younger DeGrasse was clearly indicating, with great good humor, “I’m coming for you, man.” And the elder Bolt replied, with his wagging finger and bigger smile, “I see you. Watch your step, kid. Watch your step.”
Bolt, as expected, finished it the next day, taking gold and defeating silver-medal winner DeGrasse in 19.78 seconds, compared to the up-and-coming Canadian’s 20.02 seconds. But what DeGrasse had to say before the race was compelling in its honesty and focus.
“I always want to push (Bolt),” DeGrasse said. “I feel like I have a great shot to get on the podium again.”
Competitive spirit drives great performances, if it’s channeled in a healthy, productive way. DeGrasse honors Bolt’s achievements, speed and hard work by attempting to out-perform the world’s fastest sprinter. And he came close in the semi-final. But he used that need to push the Olympic star, and push him hard, to propel himself on to the podium. DeGrasse pushed Bolt because he believed it would improve his own performance. It was respectful competition, based on true admiration for another’s skills, determination and innate abilities.
The Rio Olympics have given us a clear window on competition as a great motivator to athletes – both individuals and teams – to command the best in themselves and each other. But there’s no reason to believe that same spirit can’t build a similar landscape in organizations and institutions, where competition could be used to take performance to new heights, with everyone in the game to achieve stretch goals and play their biggest game.
Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps of the United States – 28 Olympic medals, 23 of them gold – has been competing with and against teammate Ryan Lochte for four Olympics. Lochte has four consecutive world championship titles in the 200m individual medley race, but no Olympic gold. Phelps beat him in the last four Games.
Gregg Toy, who coached Phelps and Lochte at the 2012 Olympics, told CBS Sports, “The competitive environment between those two guys has always been good. Even at their own testament, they both say they bring out the best in each other. And I think there’s a mutual respect, but also they’re very competitive and neither one wants to give in or go home.”
The individual competition leads to teams of stunning performances, which we have all witnessed this past two weeks. Perhaps one of my favorite moments of these games was the first men’s 4 X100 medley swim team relay when the U.S. won gold and the award ceremony and national anthem brought the youngest team mate, Ryan Held to tears. Michael Phelps being the elder competitor and leader on the team demonstrated compassion for Held. He hugged him, signaling not only a knowing emotion, but a recognition of all that it means to train and work and compete and win… seemingly saying, “Welcome to the club, this is what it is like to contribute to a gold medal performance and bring a nation to its feet.”
Being competitive pushes any performer in any field to greater achievements, if they approach their work the way Olympic athletes do – by committing to hard work, respecting the people around them, listening to the coaches who support them and encouraging others to succeed even as they succeed themselves.
The “coaches” at work, the leaders and managers, must commit to maintaining a fair playing field for the team and to ensuring competition is consistently friendly and positive. New generations of workers are demanding that as they bring “crowd sourcing values” and fairness to our awareness.
Harnessing a competitive spirit will create a company culture that ignites the soul so the best of us continue to give their best, perhaps in ways that are more magical than they ever imagined they could be. A foundation of trust has also been visible in these Olympics. While the coaches have been on the sidelines or in the background, it is clear that every stellar performer and every world-breaking performance is in part due to the partnership of a dedicated coach who prefers that role and only wins through the success of others. We can all learn from Olympians who show us how to play in a world where winning is measured by 10ths of seconds and feet. And in the end, the invitation is always to play a bigger game for the sake of humanity.