Luck, fluke, cheating, an accidental alignment of the planets?
Many commentators, like the French cycling journalist Antoine Vayer and Australian cyclist Anna Meares, have 'raised their eyebrows' at Team GB's performance at the 2016 Olympics. Vayer and others have alluded to murky reasons for Team GB's stellar success.
This is a shame because the 20-year renaissance of the British Olympic team is actually a master class in collective regeneration, as applicable to businesses and even countries as it is to regenerating an Olympic team.
Here's seven reasons why Team GB has been so spectacularly successful:
1. John Major
Social transformations and breakthroughs don't happen by accident. They start with someone making a stand.
In 1996 the UK had its worst ever Olympics in Atlanta: one gold medal left it 36th in the medals table (sandwiched between Ethiopia and Belarus). The UK's then Prime Minister John Major declared things were going to change.
John Major is not a name that tends to come to mind when great leaders are mentioned. In a world where we increasingly place personalities above impact he gets forgotten. But if you look at results he is the UK's most successful post-war Prime Minister, leaving the country in far better shape than he found it. This perhaps explains why he placed so much emphasis on action rather than rhetoric with the Olympics. While Bill Clinton was touring the world with big words and a big smile, Major backed up his declaration with actions and funds. He didn't just throw money at it; he was very clear what results he wanted to see and made the funds available to deliver them.
2. Collective Identity
A lot of the western world is in the throws of an almighty identity crisis. People want to be involved with things they can identify with that seem noble, authentic, and worthwhile. This is why we like to follow sports teams. And where a lot of countries have lost their way.
The UK more than any European country has a struggle with identity as many people don't really know where they live - England, Great Britain, the United Kingdom? Technically the British team should be called 'Team UK', but what Team GB shows is that the notion of 'a great Britain' is what people connect with.
British people identify with Team GB. They want to be part of Team GB. Stella McCartney's kit design brilliantly catches the essence of this - on the one hand traditional, on the other leveraging the glam punk ethos of Vivian Westwood, Brit Art, and a nation of festivals and raves.
Pride comes in two forms: a big P version, that is all about vanity and ego, and a small p version, that is about passion, heart and a determination to do something well.
Nationalism often falls in the big P version of pride. We see that with the England football team. The fans carry a groundless sense of entitlement that their team is and should be better than everyone else. England expects. But why? The England football team has won only one major tournament in 50 years. Big P pride demands immediate results - sack the manager, restore us to where we believe we should be. It is deluded and vain.
Small p pride - the kind of pride that infuses Team GB - is the pride in collective endevour, slowly but surely building something that has resilience and is worthwhile.
4. Focusing on cultural strengths
I have spent a lot of the last decade working on developing high performing cultures in organisations and am continually surprised how little many people really understand what a culture is.
Culture is what binds us. It is what distinguishes one group of people from another. And crucially it was drives behavior. Culture is powerful and pervasive, yet hidden in plain sight.
The most dynamic cultures have common DNA, but are growing, changing and assimilating all the time. Understanding this DNA is important. Britain is an island nation of determined resilient individuals who best work together in small groups to achieve things. Its culture is a dynamic balance of technical curiosity and creativity, passion and pragmatism, innovation and endurance. You see these traits in everything from Alan Turing's breaking of the enigma code to The Beatles.
From the get go Team GB focused the majority of its attention on sports and disciplines that played to these cultural strengths - especially cycling and rowing. Highly technical, with a great emphasis on individual endeavor, but only possible to achieve in highly cohesive teams.
5. Focusing of resources
A common response to failure, especially where there had been clear underfunding, is to say 'throw money at it'. It is this thinking that has in many places caused the EU project to come unstuck and has blighted many a public service.
Of course you need funding - money is a critical nutrient of any enterprise, but it needs to be channeled, focused and linked to very clear outcomes. Team GB has kept this front of mind, channeling and focusing resources linked to very clear breakthrough performance outcomes that play to its strengths.
Back in 1996 the UK sports scene was a fragmented mess. Over a twenty-year period this has been transformed into a rich ecosystem designed to foster excellence in certain areas from the grassroots up.
Bidding for and winning the 2002 Commonwealth Games provided the means not only to put in place physical infrastructure, particularly the velodrome in Manchester, but also the social infrastructure that reached out into schools and clubs. Centres of performance excellence operated like F1 teams with ideas, innovation and thinking quickly being assimilated into the wider community. The London Olympics provided a secondary boost and also connected the north with the south.
7. We are all in this together
One of the most noticeable attributes of Team GB is their togetherness. This isn't so much a team as a project - a group of people who are clearly out to achieve something together. This ultimately is what has Team GB perform at such a high level.
Team GB isn't just a role model for other aspiring national sports teams, but as many countries struggle for social cohesion in the rapidly changing global landscape, it is a role model for nations themselves.
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