Lessons from Olympic and para Olympics success

India has attained unprecedented success for itself in the year 2021 at both the Olympics where it won 7 medals but also the Paralympics where it won an astonishing 19 medals.

This has not been a lucky achievement but something has been achieved methodically over the years.

This story is a testament to what an organization can achieve when the entire team plays its part in fulfilling its duties perfectly.

 At first though, I would request you to keep political views aside and only view this as a leadership case study!

This story begins right after the independence of India. With the exception of Hockey, India was not able to win medals at any Olympic events.

Because of apathy from the officials and lowering standards, after 1980, India stopped winning any medals at Hockey too and the last time it won an individual medal was in 1948.

As a result of continued failures for decades, the athletes themselves stopped believing that it was possible to win an Olympic Medal and when that belief was killed, it was impossible for them to win.

After a while, the attitude of many athletes was that they became satisfied with just qualifying and did not think they could actually win a medal, while many officials accompanying them treated the events as an overseas vacation!

This finally started changing in 1996 when after a drought of many years, Leander Paes managed to win an individual Bronze medal in Tennis. This was followed by a bronze in 2000 from Karnam Malleswari and a Silver in 2004 from Rajyavardhan Rathore.

By the way, in the Athens Paralympics of 2004, a disabled athlete named Devendra Jhajharia managed to win a Gold, but absolutely no one noticed it since no media house covered it. He travelled to the Paralympics with money he gathered ON HIS OWN.

When he left for Athens, only his father sent him off. His father told him that if he won a medal, a lot of people would shower love on him when he came back. But when he came to India after winning the Gold, only three people received him!

This indifferent attitude began to change somewhere in 2008, where India finally won 3 medals, including a gold. It was only then that Indians finally started believing that athletes could win multiple Medals at the Olympics.

But there was still a problem. Financial and infrastructural support to train existing athletes remained minimal and it was said that people who managed to win a medal, didn’t do it because of the system but despite the system!

When Olympians were getting this treatment, one can only imagine the plight of Paralympians who were disabled. They got virtually 1/10th the support and zero media recognition. This demotivated them further and India’s performance at the Paralympics was mediocre.

But a change happened after 2016 when India had one of its worst Olympics in recent years where they managed to win only 2 medals.

It was then that the country’s leadership decided that they would now create a system to nurture talented athletes and support them financially, logistically and psychologically right from their formative years, to ensure they become world class and become potential medal winners.

This was truly unprecedented in the history of India as never before had the country’s leadership chosen to get so deeply involved with the development of its athletes.

A lot of resources were allocated to talented athletes who were potential medal winners. They were given all the facilities they required and if world class coaching was not available in India for that sport, they were sent abroad to get international coaching. All of this was funded for several years.

On the other hand, Para-Athletes who had been ignored for several decades and treated as second class citizens were for the first time given tremendous importance in the scheme of things. In fact, they were given even more importance because a para-athlete needed a lot more equipment and facilities to perform to the best of their abilities as compared to an able bodied one.

But the most unprecedented thing that happened was that the Prime Minister of the country himself stepped in to encourage the athletes and the para-athletes.

Never before had the Prime Minister of any nation given such a warm send off to not only his country’s Olympians but also Paralympians. He held special interaction sessions with them and encouraged them to give their best WITHOUT putting any pressure on them to get a medal.

The athletes and para-athletes who were already incredibly skilled and world class because of their training, now just had to go out and perform.

Soon this paid off. India recorded its best ever performance in both Olympics and Paralympics. The Paralympic performance was even more astounding as India ended up winning 19 medals which included several golds!

But what happened after winning the medals was also unheard of. After each medal winning performance, the individual received a call from the country’s leader congratulating them on their victory.

In fact, Sharad Kumar, a Paralympian who won bronze in high jump told the story about how the American who won the gold was shocked when he found that India’s Prime Minister was personally calling up and congratulating Indian medal winners. The American said that nothing was bigger than having your country’s leader call you personally, not even a gold medal!

Things truly had changed in 2021. When Devendra Jhajharia came back to India from this year’s Paralympics after winning a 3rd Medal, he said that like his father promised, people did eventually shower love on him, it just him 17 years to finally see that love!

It isn’t as if these people didn’t get medals before, it’s just that they never received their due recognition! The sole reason for this change was because the leadership ensured that not only did the athletes get the financial support for training, but also the emotional support to stay motivated through pep talks, rewards and media recognition.

Furthermore, it isn’t as if the people who lost out on medals were ignored. In post event interactions, even the people who didn’t win medals were invited, told to not lose heart and prepare for the next event. The system’s support would always be behind them!

So what are the lessons learned from this story! Here they are!

1)      Massive success only happens when the entire team works in cohesion. An organ in the body can’t function if other organs don’t support it!

2)      Self Belief is everything. When athletes stopped believing they could win medals, India stopped winning.

3)      Support and encouragement from team leaders is a key ingredient for self-belief and skill development in team members.

4)      There maybe many in the team who may not be your traditional spectacular high achievers. Like Para-athletes, there maybe something in life holding them back. But if you provide even those people with the right resources and mental support, they have the potential to do wonders.

5)      People should be encouraged to give their best, but not pushed so hard that they feel their world will end if they don’t deliver.

6)      Small acts of praise and recognition given personally to each individual who performs may sometimes motivate them even more than actually getting a “gold medal!”

7)      Finally, even the people who maybe doing the right actions, but not getting the right results should not be ignored. They should be encouraged and their concerns should be heard. If they are on the right path, it’s only a matter of time before they start to deliver!