The Olympic Games are a quadrennial stimulus overload. There are so many events, so many different sports that are usually obscure to the American public that the nuances of each are lost in the melee. It is easy to forget that each athlete has spent years dedicated to the art and the science of their sport, has become a leading expert in the nuances of execution and proven themselves worthy of competing at the highest level possible. As observers, the deeper our knowledge of any one sport, the more a sport comes alive. The strategies, competition tactics and chances taken by the athletes gain that much more clarity.
My favourite events to watch were the cycling races. As an amateur cyclist myself, I am lucky enough to approximate the events we watched on television and having experience in the nuances of the sport made every race exciting.
At the start of the Games, the British home team was favoured in almost every cycling event. Cycling is generally split into four main categories: road, track (indoor racing on a wooden velodrome), mountain and BMX. I am going to write about road and track cycling.
British cycling stands apart from other nations, and many other national sports, because the governing body (named, appropriately enough, British Cycling) has made massive investments in supporting world-class performance and is known for being extremely scientific and data-driven in their approach. To say that they do their homework is an understatement. British Cycling epitomises preparation and research. At the start of every race, we knew that the British had thrown everything they had at research, materials and training. From their results, I think that we can draw some interesting parallels to market research’s impact on business and maybe a few lessons.
On the track, the British were represented by Sir Chris Hoy, awarded a knighthood after his dominant performance at the last Games, multiple-time world champion, and defending Olympic champion in the Match Sprint. They also had Jason Kenney, defending champion in the Team Sprint, Victoria Pendleton and Jess Varnish, world record holders in the Team Sprint. On the road, they had the current world champion and the best sprinter in the world in Mark Cavendish, and they had the winner of this year’s Tour de France (and the first British winner ever), multiple time track Olympic and world champion in Bradley Wiggins.
Men’s Match Sprint: Do your research
The Match Sprint is a head-to-head race between two riders over three laps of the track, or around 750m, depending on the track. Riders start side-by-side and typically negotiate the first half of the race quite slowly, as each seeks a tactical advantage in position. Finally they accelerate towards the line at astounding speeds.
Frenchman Grégory Baugé is the current world champion who left Briton Jason Kenney as runner up the last two years. The last man to defeat Baugé was Sir Chris Hoy, who took Match Sprint gold in Beijing in 2008. Hoy was widely favoured to contend for gold in the Match Sprint again in London, especially as he was closing in on Steven Redgrave’s record 5 gold medals to become Britain’s most decorated Olympian ever. Hoy had also frequently beaten Kenney in other international competition. In a surprise decision, however, British Cycling decided to run Kenney in the event instead, a man who had never defeated Baugé and, on paper at least, appeared slower than his fellow countryman Hoy.
Kenney shocked the Frenchman and won gold by dominating Baugé 2-0 in the best-of-three final round.
In later interviews the British team representatives described how they had thrown everything they had at the event because this would be one of the most difficult medals to win. Careful studies of prior international racing and objective measurements of Kenny’s physical progress led them to think that Baugé could be defeated, given the right conditions. Custom bicycles were designed and built specifically for the British team, with an eye towards maximum performance. No compromises were made for aesthetics or marketability. A team of researchers reviewed video in between every heat, looking for weaknesses and patterns in opponents’ sprints. Before the start, Kenney would receive instructions on what to expect, where to move and what to do. There was no guesswork, just ruthless efficiency. In the final, Baugé’s weaknesses were exposed and exploited, and Britain took another gold.
Women’s Team Sprint: Execution is everything
The British duo of Victoria Pendleton and Jessica Varnish came into the Games as reigning world champions and world record holders in the Team Sprint. This two-lap women’s event (three for the men) starts competing teams off on opposite sides of the track, and each rider leads their team for one lap then pulls off, with the last rider doing one lap solo. Speeds reach 64 kmph for the women and over 75 kmph for the men. Whipping around a velodrome on skinny tires, there is no room for error.
Pendleton and Varnish were on the same custom superbikes as the rest of the squad, with wind-tunnel optimissed equipment and positions. They were the fastest team in a race that has little to no actual interaction with the opposing team. They should have won.
In the semi-final against the Ukraines, Varnish executed her lap but pulled off a fraction too soon and Pendelton began her lap just outside the narrow exchange zone. At 40mph it was an error in timing in the 1/100ths of seconds range, and the women were relegated out of the medals. The best prepared, fastest, most dominant team in the world lost it all in half the blink of an eye with the tiniest of technical errors, one that takes a photo-finish camera to even capture.
Men’s Road Race: Stay hungry
The men’s road race was a 250 km ride on a tight, technical course around London. The British team brought a squad full of some of the most dominant road racers in the professional field, including Tour de France champion Wiggins and world champion Cavendish. They rode superbikes developed by British Cycling, picked the fastest wheels available and even had custom helmets and skinsuits all designed for maximum performance. They were expected to be the dominant force in the race, and the pressure was on to perform.
The race was won by a Kazak named Alexander Vinokourov, who came to the race with a single teammate and stock equipment from his professional team. The top British finisher was Cavendish, who finished 29th.
By all accounts the British rode an excellent race, at least until the closing kilometres. Due to the expected dominance of the British riders, other smaller, weaker teams rode more opportunistically, waiting for chinks in the British armour to show. Small groups of riders slipped away, forcing the British to work constantly, until 22 riders were away, and not a Brit among them. The lead group splintered towards the end and Vinokourov and the Columbian Rigoberto Uran jumped away in the last few kilometres and fought it out for the win.
The British preparation was perfect and their execution was excellent, but they were worn down by weaker competitors willing to risk it all for a shot at glory. Vinokourov slipped into the final move, saved his energy as much as possible, and picked one single move to bet the farm on in order to cross the line first. It was courageous, masterfully executed and emotional to watch.
Parallels to Research and Business
The British dominated Olympic cycling by taking home 12 medals from the Games, with 8 of them gold. No other nation won more than one gold medal in cycling.
Britain’s performance in Olympic cycling is a reminder that quantitative analytics and competitive research can tilt the odds in your favour. Well designed, data-driven research can lead to confident decisions in the heat of battle. Data alone, however, is meaningless until it is acted upon, and only execution matters to the bottom line. Finally, despite preparation and planning and perfect follow through, sometimes you will be put on the back foot anyways. Competitors may act irrationally or unexpectedly, and your strengths may become liabilities. When that happens you will have to trust your experience, your abilities and your teammates, and you must do so expediently – hesitation will quickly shut the door on opportunity. In this case, in order to win you are going to have to take a chance, and race for it.