8 July 2016

Plotting for Gold: Managing an Olympic Juggernaut

Daniel Gallan

With less than a month to go before the world descends on Rio for the 27th Summer Olympic Games, thousands of athletes, coaches and sports practitioners are gearing up for the flagship sporting event of the year. The largest contingent will be representing the red, white and blue of the United States of America and such a big team comes with a host of big challenges. Finbarr Kirwan is a High Performance Director at the United States Olympics Committee (USOC) heading up two of the largest teams at the Games: track and field and swimming. He walks us through some of the obstacles he faces and divulges how he and his team are plotting for gold.   

Michael Phelps, US swimmer and the most decorated Olympian in history with 22 medals across 4 Games, celebrates at the medal ceremony during the U.S. Olympic Swimming Team Trials at CenturyLink Centre.  Image Supplied by Action Imag  es /  Rob Schumacher.

Michael Phelps, US swimmer and the most decorated Olympian in history with 22 medals across 4 Games, celebrates at the medal ceremony during the U.S. Olympic Swimming Team Trials at CenturyLink Centre. Image Supplied by Action Images /  Rob Schumacher.

When Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian nationalist, shot and killed the heir to Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on the 28th June 1914, he set in motion a chain of events that hauled humanity out of the Old World and catapulted it into the 20th century. One act of terrorism saw the world’s great powers crank their war machines into gear and race head first into the charnel house of horrors that became known as World War I.

Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia backed their tiny Slav ally and declared war on Austria-Hungary. Germany declared war on Russia which caused France to declare war on Germany. By the end of all the madness four years later, 17 million people would be dead.

This was a force of nature, a raging fire that could only be stopped once it had burned itself out. Much of the blame was targeted at Germany, but as Barbara Tuchman wrote in The Guns of August (1962), “Once the mobilisation button was pushed, the whole vast machinery for calling up, equipping, and transporting two million [German] men began turning automatically.”

At one point, it looked as if Germany could change the course of history and refrain from attacking France and focus entirely on Russia. Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last German Emperor, implored with his war commander, Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke to turn around his forces marching west and turn them east.

He replied, “Your majesty, it cannot be done. The deployment of millions cannot be improvised.”

In the nineteenth century, war was a grotesque manifestation of overt nationalism. In 2016, while we pat ourselves on the back for our interconnectedness in the global village, these ideals still pervade our psyche.

Thankfully, great powers do not launch armies at each other but through competition in general, and in sport in particular, we still have outlets for our jingoism. With the exception of perhaps the Fifa World Cup, the Summer Olympic Games is the flagship occasion where we get to beat our chests, wave our nation’s flags, and cheer on those selected to do battle for our collective pride.

As with conflicts throughout history, there are superpowers and there are minnows. In less than a month, the largest of all the superpowers, the United States of America, will descend on Rio with the soul aim of conquering all before them.

Of the 27 Modern Olympic Games since 1896, the US has finished on top of the medals table 16 times. Four years ago in London, 10.7% of all medals won hung around the neck of a representative of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). This year, they’re pushing for even greater heights.

Finbarr Kirwan is the High Performance Director at USOC, overseeing all the athletes, coaches and practitioners who fall under track and field, swimming and golf, amongst other disciplines – two of these teams (track and field and swimming) won a combined 59 medals including 35 gold. While he is confident that these numbers can be improved on in Rio, he does admit that mobilising the largest team at the Games brings a unique set of challenges.

“I suppose you can say it is like organising a small army,” Kirwan jokes from USOC’s headquarters in Colorado Springs. “Collectively we have over 550 athletes travelling to Rio. The teams I work with have about 180. There is a great logistical challenge that comes with managing a team that big as there are so many moving parts. My job is to get all those parts working together as a collective unit.”

Allyson Felix, Bianca Knight, Carmelita Jeter and Tianna Madison secured gold in London four years ago in record time (40.82 seconds) in the 4x100m relay. 

Allyson Felix, Bianca Knight, Carmelita Jeter and Tianna Madison secured gold in London four years ago in record time (40.82 seconds) in the 4x100m relay. 

Rio 2016 is the fourth Games Kirwan is attending, but his first with USOC, having previously worked as the High Performance Manager for the Irish Sport Council. Back then, he oversaw the development of roughly 65 athletes. Now, he has close to ten times that number.

Unlike the coaches or managers of the athletes and teams, Kirwan does not handle the day to day training or conditioning of the athletes. He is more a General of the army than a Captain of a company. “The most important aspect of my work is relationships and ensuring that I maintain a strong tie with the right people,” he explains.

The athletes and coaches who will represent the USA are all of the elite level. They have all competed on the world stage in some form or another. What makes the Games unique is that it brings together different sports under one banner.

Representing your country at the Games might seem like all the motivation a coach or athlete needs, and often it is. But what Kirwan outlines is that collective success can only be achieved by a collective ethos. “We need everyone pulling in the same direction. There can be no mavericks who think they’re bigger than USOC at the Games.”

Supressing ego in elite sport can be a double edged sword. On the one hand, individualism can create disharmony within a team, and when athletes and coaches from different sports start thinking of themselves as more important than another faction, tension can ensue. However, success in elite sport almost requires ego

Of course, complacency is ill-advised, but without a steadfast belief that success is not just possible, but almost a sure thing, the chance of gold greatly diminishes. So how does Kirwan find a balance? By being clear on what is expected from every member of the team.

Everyone at USOC has a job description that is agreed upon by the individual and the organisation. Before the Games, these roles have a degree of flexibility to them but on the ground at Rio, expectations are reinforced. “You have to leave your ego behind,” Kirwan says. “If roles and expectations are clearly defined, supressing ego is a by-product. The practitioners and coaches gain confidence in their own ability when they meet those expectations and, more often than not, they are fulfilled.”

Kirwan explains that he constantly reminds the practitioners under his watch that they themselves will not receive a medal. “That is very important as that reality is humbling,” he says. “The focus is on the athlete and nothing else. We are all there in a service role”

Ultimately though, the Games are all about winning medals. Kirwan is clear that everyone at USOC is driven by the unified goal of topping the medal count. As such, establishing and then managing a hierarchy within the organisation is an integral part of that success.

Medals are not distributed equally at the Games and therefore resources are not distributed equally among the athletes and sports at USOC. “It’s a bit Darwinian in that sense,” Kirwan says. Swimming won 16 of the 34 gold medals available in 2012 while American cyclists only contributed a single gold. Obviously these two teams can’t receive equal attention.

Much of Kirwan’s job entails having honest conversations with the different sports and explaining to them that resources are finite and that they might not stretch as far as they’d like in terms of service provisions. Resource allocation is established according to the medal potential of the sport. No sport is left unassisted, but the big teams receive the lion’s share.

Does this create animosity among smaller teams who feel they are getting short-changed? “The process of resource allocation is a rigorous one that is supported by tons of data and analytics,” Kirwan explains. He says that teams often begin conversations unhappy about resource allocation, but through a rational, statistically supported dialogue, they leave content. “If a team believes they are on the rise or that they will win more medals, we keep the conversation alive. But I am confident that every decision we make is the right one.”

The key here is to take the subjectivity out of the decision making process. Because USOC, unlike the Irish Sport council for example, does not receive any government funding, they are not bound to sentimentality that can be a factor in international competition.

Like the United States Ski and Snow Boarding Association, USOC rely on sponsors and donors to fund their programmes. They are responsible to those sponsors who are eager to see a return on their investment. In committees tied to their nation’s government, political influence is an inevitable variable that must be navigated. As Kirwan says, “Here at USOC, we are empowered to optimise performance above all else.”

The way USOC functions is the benchmark for all federations. Sure, their size is an advantage, but that in itself brings logistical challenges. Talent needs to be sourced and developed from every corner of the country, provisions and resources need to be provided for every athlete, ensuring that every member pulls in the same direction; abundance provides its own unique obstacles.

But what is the greatest challenge for Kirwan? What is keeping him up at night? “Impatience,” he says with a chuckle. “I can’t wait to get there. We have been working so hard and I just want to get going. We feel confident that we have done everything we can. When we leave Rio, I know we will have no regrets.”

As USOC’s gears start turning, and the great machine that is the world’s largest Olympic team sputters into life, there will be no stopping it. The deployment of this mighty juggernaut is less than a month away and one gets the feeling that it is set to sweep all before them once again.  

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town from 5 - 7 October 2016.