Rio 2016: Leadership and Management Lessons from the Paralympic Games

In the last of his exclusive blogs from Rio, IDG associate and Chairman of The English Institute of Sport John Steele, reflects on what can be learned from the Paralympics Games.

If its medals you want, then our ParalympicGB team carried on where their Olympic partners finished. A record breaking haul of 147 medals (the target to beat from London was 121), 64 golds, 39 silvers, 44 bronze. What was particularly impressive was the conversion rate to gold, a reflection of a growing understanding of how to shape and develop a top Paralympic athlete.

The change in our high performance Paralympic system in just two cycles is profound. At the 2008 games in Beijing, the UK Paralympic system and brand as a whole, although successful ,was still finding its feet. London 2012 launched a new exciting age for Paralympic sport where a nation was hungry to see and support the inspiring athletes whose stories on and off the sporting stage stir the emotions like no other sport. Add to that the edgy coverage of Channel 4, increased lottery and government funding, and strong leadership from the British Paralympic Association and there was inevitably going to be a very engaged UK public.

But yet again if you just focus on the medals then you are missing the greater power and impact of Paralympic sport. The Brazilian people seemed to find the Games more enjoyable, energetic and inspiring than the Olympic counterpart. Who could not be inspired by Ibrahim Hamato, the Eygptian table tennis player, who having had a train accident was left with no arms, and refused to leave his home for three years. He then tried to play soccer, but it was too dangerous because he had no way of protecting himself when he fell. So Hamadtou moved on to table tennis, and it took him three years to learn how to flick the ball up with his toes and hold the paddle with his mouth. We could all learn from his resilience and refusal to let anything, however extreme, prevent him from living life to the full.

Ibrahim Hamato in action at the Rio Paralympic games

So what of our GB team? Multi-medallists played a huge part, and the final planning running into the Games looked to ensure that potential multi-medallists were well protected and the chances of injury or illness were minimized. We have also seen some impressive success around talent transfer.

One of the most memorable Paralympic days this summer for me was the canoeing at the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon. Six events all with GB athletes competing. An hour later GB recorded five medals, three of which were gold.

Jeanette Chippington last topped the podium as a swimmer at the Atlanta 1996 Paralympics, but now twenty years on and one family later she was on the podium again in a different sport. Eighteen years after she lost use of her legs due to a mystery virus picked up while shearing sheep in Australia, Emma Wiggs also won gold.

Stirring stuff, but also a lesson in talent management. Do we always consider how we maximize the human resource we have available to us? Or are we too quick to limit and categorise individuals by past experience and perceived skill set.

If I had to crystalise the key factors in the Rio Paralympic campaign they would be:

  • An innovative and unconventional approach to identifying talent.
  • Clarity of athlete development pathways.
  • An objective approach to maximising the output of potential multi-medallists.
  • Understanding the key elements of “what it takes to win” in each sport and focusing on making these excellent.
  • Ensuring athlete support is world class but prioritised on what really matters and not indulging in areas that may not make a difference.

For our agencies that strategically plan and support the Olympic and Paralympic Missions, preparation for the Tokyo cycle has long since started. The challenge now is how do we build on unprecedented success?

But before we turn away from Rio and towards Japan a final thought from a recent sporting incident. Triathlons Brownlee brothers enjoyed the rare success of gold and silver at this years Olympics to better their gold and bronze in London. This week they travelled to Mexico where Jonny was leading with just a 100m to go but heat stroke took its toll and he started weaving around and looked set not to complete. His brother Alistair in second place stopped him collapsing and supported him up to the finish line, having been passed by the previously third place south African.

At the finish he pushed Jonny over the line in front of him ensuring his brother won the silver medal. Brotherly love? When Alistair was asked to comment he said “what an idiot, he should have won the race easily but he got it tactically wrong…” One thing is for certain the emotion of sport still has the power to shape lives and inspire us all.

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