How Team GB’s Olympic Success was Powered by Innovation

Innovation at the Olympics

The Rio Olympics of 2016 have drawn to a close, and the results have confirmed Great Britain’s status as a sporting superpower.

Great Britain has several peers, nations such as France, Germany, and Japan which boast a similar GDP and broadly comparable population. To best these formidable competitors on the international sporting stage would be impressive enough, but Great Britain even succeeded in climbing into second place in the medals table ahead of China, an economic behemoth able to call on the skills and abilities of some 1.3 billion people.

In the battle between the giant Chinese Goliath versus the tiny David of Great Britain, it was the Great British David that defied the odds to come out on top in the final medal tally.

Success, of course, is by no means an entirely alien concept to Britain’s Olympic athletes. Team GB landed an impressive haul of 65 medals in the London Olympic Games of 2012, landing third place in the overall medal table as a result.

As good as this was, it seemed as though things were very unlikely to get better. Team GB’s impressive Olympic performance in 2012 could be largely attributed to a combination of home advantage and a healthy dose of luck. It was an extraordinary performance, but a performance that might be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.

Very few pundits, if any at all, predicted that Great Britain would be able to repeat their London success, or even surpass it, in future Olympics. Events in Rio 20161, however, took a remarkable turn.

That Team GB found a way to transcend even their achievements in London, and then in another hemisphere entirely, took the world by surprise.

Such success did show, however, that factors beyond mere good fortune or geographical location were very much at play.

Failing fast

Great Britain had not always been terribly successful at the Olympic Games, in fact quite the opposite is true.

The 1992 Barcelona Olympics saw the British team return home with just five gold medals. In 1996 the team failed to clear even this very low bar when they claimed just one solitary gold in Atlanta, finishing well down in the medal table behind even sporting and economic minnows such as North Korea.

Whilst Atlanta was little short of a national humiliation, it spurred on the government and Team GB to launch an ambitious programme to revitalise British Olympic sport.

Innovating for success

The first ingredient which would help to transform Team GB’s fortunes was investment. However, funding is only useful in so far as it is used wisely, and Team GB would begin to benefit enormously from a relentless focus on innovation.

Nowhere was innovation pursued with quite such determination than in the cycling events, and Team GB would dominate the cycling in Beijing, London, and Rio to such an extent that the velodrome came to be informally known as Britain’s medal factory.

Central to the strategy that would pay off so handsomely was the creation of a research and development facility. Initially known as the Secret Squirrel Club, and now referred to somewhat mysteriously as Room X2, this facility examined every imaginable aspect of the British cyclists’ strategy, equipment, and performance.

The changes implemented by Britain’s cycling bosses ranged from expensive and difficult through to the cheap and sometimes incredibly simple.

At the expensive end of the scale was the introduction of wind tunnels, which allowed experts to conduct detailed analysis of the aerodynamic qualities of athlete and equipment alike.

Less high-tech was the decision to ensure athletes properly washed their hands using anti-bacterial gels. This simple practice cut down on infections and illness and helped reduce the number of valuable training days lost due to poor health.

There was no one single improvement which would instantly transform Britain’s fortunes. The effect of each individual innovation3 might only be minimal, but the cumulative impact of such a large number of marginal gains would be immense.

Why Team GB’s Methods Matters for your Business

The Olympics might be an amateur sporting event, albeit one on the grandest scale imaginable, but Team GB’s formula for success will sound familiar to most successful businesses.

Investment is important, and investing in innovation can deliver impressive results. A single innovation might not necessarily be a game changer, but any business that is able to consistently and successfully innovate will have the edge over the competition.


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