13th October 2016 – Seeing our Paralympics team being hosted yesterday by the President of Ireland prompted me to share some thoughts on a truly inspiring personal experience at the Paralympics, to contrast it (perhaps unfairly) with Olympics and to draw some lessons at an individual level and for the governance of sports organisations.
In September I had trekked with trepidation to Rio to see my brother in law, Cork-born Pat O’Leary, compete for Ireland in the Paralympics. It was nothing short of truly inspirational. Pat was part of a team that returned with 11 Paralympics medals, many fine performances reaching heights well beyond expectation. Pat didn’t medal but he made history and finished 6th in the first ever Paracanoeing final.
As a business consultant with clients (amongst other industries) in the professional sports business, I asked myself what could be drawn from the games to help the governance of sport generally. In contrast to the Paralympics, the Olympics were not our finest day as a nation, despite some #PullLikeADog high spots. More worryingly, Minister for Sport Shane Ross says that, in his view, sports governance is as big a problem in Ireland as the governance of our charities. This suggests a significant challenge to tackle.
What I learned at the Paralympics –
1. Be discerning with the heroes of your stories. The best leaders motivate people not by boring speeches but by the kernels of stories that transmit powerful ideas. The Paralympic story is about how you rebound to become amongst the best in the world after war injuries, catastrophic illnesses, car accidents, bear attacks, amputations or birth defects. There are far too many individual stories to do justice to mention even a few here. Paralympics Ireland wisely used traditional and social media to let the athletes and their individual stories take centre stage. The brilliant background work done by Paralympics Ireland CEO Liam Harbison and his team did not put themselves in the limelight and largely went unnoticed. Good lesson here for sports and business leaders who rather like when they become the story ahead of all others.
2. Shine a light on sporting heroes that are different. For too brief a period recently across both festivals, there was a time when teenage girls in the velodrome, slight young men in race-walking and people in their sixties who ride horses were acclaimed as the best in the world. In the next few weeks, we will return to a stodgy sporting diet of muscular male sport, with competitors in their teens and twenties who will be reinstalled as the central heroes of our sporting culture. And the teenage girls who, like Janis Ian, aren’t picked for Basketball will go back to simply dropping out. A few will go underground to invisible ‘minority’ sports but most will drop out. Even for men, there is not enough diversity of role models to truly cater for all shapes and sizes.
3. We shouldn’t be afraid of the F-word: Really, it’s ‘Family’. We all know about Granny O’Donovan’s soup and brown bread and Annalise Murphy’s famous sailing parents. Even more so, to make a Paralympian takes the support of a whole household, at least. Just ask Pat’s wife, Jude and his two kids. Sports in Ireland need to be oriented to get the whole family involved, and ideally moving and exercising together.
4. Rio showed that “rip off” prices get in the way of building a powerfully emotional connection between sports and the family. When the Paralympics organisers dropped prices for tickets, over 2 million were sold, the people of Rio came out in their families and school groups, embraced the games and became the proud and vocal ambassadors of the achievement of their city. The pricing and trading of tickets may be a sensitive subject right now but we could popularise many sparsely attended sporting occasions by making sure that ticketing is fairer and cheaper.
5. “Health is a Crown, worn by those who are well and only noticed by those who are sick.” I saw a new twist on this old African proverb in Rio. Brazilians were stopping Paralympians in the street (I saw it happen a number of times to Pat O’Leary in the Olympic Park) and then queueing up to have their photos taken with the heroes of the day. For a brief shining period, ability in the context of disability became ‘cool’.
6. Seize the day and have some FUN. In the last 2 years, Kadeena Cox of Team GB suffered a stroke and was diagnosed with MS. At the Paralympics, she amazingly won gold in two unconnected events on the track and in the Velodrome. But for Kadeena and some other Paralympians, they have so little idea how their disability will progress that thinking of Tokyo 2020 is a luxury. They enjoy their sport and their life now. They seize the day. We can all learn from this. Sport should be, first and foremost, fun and we should be able to enjoy its benefits today. (Note to all of us parents who stand or pace the pitch sidelines of Ireland at matches each weekend – lighten up!)
7. In sport, ideally you want your competition to be strong and able to win. Whereas in the commercial world your ultimate ambition is to destroy all competitors, in the sports business you have an inherent and ongoing interest in the strength of the competition and the health of the game. Just look at dire state of Scottish football to prove the point. Despite his record breaking sponsorships, this is a lesson that, for example, Rory McIlroy could usefully learn. A singular focus on winning is bad, even for the business of sport. Almost every Paralympian interviewed sought not just to win for themselves but wanted to be part of an inspiring legacy of improving their sport and the lives of others. From first to last, they applauded the achievement of all competitors in making it to the top table. Some of the loudest cheers in the Paralympic venues were reserved for the struggling competitors who were at the tail end of the field.
8. Our nearest neighbours had a great games for good reason. And it wasn’t because most of Team GB had experience of the games in London, because more than half their team hadn’t. Team GB has built a process for encouraging and investing in their sports and athletes because they want to identify talent and get them to be the best they can be. Not content with learning to tell the time, they have moved onto to learning how to build the clock. They have a plan and a well thought out process. Building on its success, Ireland needs to do the same. It may not be all about winning but it helps to get the best out of your talent and show others the benefit of following this approach in improving their own lives.
9. Brazilians showed that loving your country isn’t the same as loving its politics – Brazilians have seen corruption on a scale that would even make the worst of our rogue politicians blush. (A famous scheme where corporate donors effectively funded the purchase of three aircraft for a politician springs to mind.) As the opening ceremony shows, the public wasn’t afraid to jeer at their political masters. But that negativity wasn’t translated into constant individual cynicism. The warmth, friendliness, honesty and kindness of the people of Rio shone through everything. Going to Brazil, I was fearful for the safety of our group but I came home loving Rio, its people and never at any point having felt concerned for my personal safety. It was magic.
10. The standard of Paralympic sports is incredibly high and investing in it may allow us to find some new world beaters in Ireland. These were the games where the top four athletes in the Paralympic visually impaired Men’s 1,500 metres race ran final times that were all FASTER than the able bodied guy on the same track a few weeks earlier when he won his Olympic gold medal. The sporting ability I saw at the Paralympic venues was extraordinary. Don’t ever look down on these games – see in it the opening of a door to radically challenge your thinking.
Uncertainty abounds right now. These may be the best of times for you; these may be the worst of times for you. But there is one thing that we can say with absolute certainty – these are the only times that we have. If the Paralympics shows us one thing it is how to make the best of them.
Brendan Lenihan is Managing Director of Navigo Consulting Limited (www.navigo.ie), and specialises in Business Planning, Change and Governance.