Thursday, February 7, 2013

Olympics and Boards
Sad to say, as the Russians do their rehearsal for the 2014 winter Games in Sochi, this essay from during the 2010 Games remains relevant. 

Oh! To play the panpipes, and dance in some Mount Olympus glade, far above this war-torn weary world.

Do you think about the Olympics? About values?

I almost despair of fixing the Games. Almost. The  Olympic Games remind me of a comic hillbilly's roof, or of harsh warfare. The comic says, "If it's raining I can't fix the roof, and when it's sunny the roof doesn't need fixing." ... It's like how merely 13 years after rescuing Kuwait, as Anglo-American forces once again "fixed bayonets" to battle the Iraqi Forces, the people at home were already back to square one: a pre-Kuwait knowledge base of warfare. How disturbing since, as a British man said, "War is too important to leave to the generals." To me the Olympics are too important to leave to the organizing committee.

Now it's raining in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Games. Do you think my dear fellow citizens are doomed to be hillbillies? Maybe. I have often read that, for an electorate, a mere four years, the interval between elections, and between the Games, is more than enough time, time enough for everyone to forget everything about any political mismanagement. I suppose it's the same for Olympic mismanagement. I remember reading about an Olympic figure skating scandal and wondering, as I read, at how the reporter, and the editor too, could possibly be so oblivious to the previous ice scandals. No wonder there is so little follow up on, say, the Olympic committee staying in five star hotels - while dedicated athletes travel to their meets while in poverty. Nor on the old, old issue of not having ex-athletes, Olympians, on the Olympic board, or committee.

It is from my knowledge of boards that I know how surprisingly easy it is to fix things. I served as chairman of the board of directors of a small for-profit company. Not too much time was needed. Remember, even a board that steers a huge non-profit, or a big corporation, will meet for only a few hours per month. Hence I am confident that with just a few hours of thought an informed citizenry could reform the Olympics. And then, who knows? They might turn their newfound expertise towards managing, or even ending, the War on Terror.

* * * * *

Naturally, a board of governors can't micro-manage a company, and won't try to do the staff's job. Rather, a board sets "constraints" (through policies) and forms a "vision." The part-time board acts through the full-time company president. For example, a U.S. board doesn't manage the hiring of the building armed security staff. For this the company president is responsible. The board doesn't scrutinize the lengthy budget, not even if somehow they could find enough precious hours to do so. Nor is the board, despairing of their lack of hours, driven to "rubber stamp" the budget. Again, this is the president's turf.

However, the board does have time to monitor their constraining policies of, say, "a prudent reserve" or maybe "a prudent deficit." The board's policies must be concise. The vision, written as concisely as possible, should guide the entire company, top to bottom, all the time. As I wrote in my (March 2013) essay 300 (the film) and Goals a vision, or goal, need not be objective, concrete or measurable, but it needs to be imposed on any management actions that are measurable.

Before discussing Olympic values and constraints, let's look at a local city hall example:
My city has a policy, or vision, of "encouraging patronage of downtown businesses." This means parking meters to ensure that street parking has a turn over on week days, while having no metering on Sundays (church) when small businessman are so desperate for walk-in traffic.

A city parking manager found he could increase parking turnover and raise revenues if he installed wireless parking meters, and then connected them to a passing computerized car that photo-reads license plates. Cool! A measurable achievement; I hope he got a bonus. But then, he must have thought, since the  photo-car is so cheap compared to meter maids, even on Sundays when so few coins are being put into the meters... "Hey, we could economically have meters on Sundays. More revenue!" This manager's plan was even announced in the newspapers.

Then some civilians, our elected city aldermen, squashed the idea. Why? Because with all due respect to eager full-time managers, "Policy takes priority." For a board of governors, or city hall, to govern legitimately every policy must follow the Code of the West: Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

I like the vision of the folks at Google. Like essayist Paul Graham, I sometimes wonder: Just as Google has replaced earlier search engines, will some nimble upstart geeks soon replace them in turn? I think the smartest thing those folks ever did, to guard against Google becoming a vulnerable, big arrogant dinosaur, was to put in black and white their (informal) vision, "Don't be evil."

As for the Games, if we, the people of the world, are considered as being the stake holders, the experience partners, the citizenry of the Olympics, then it shouldn't be too hard for us, in solidarity, to keep the Games on course. No need to micro-manage, but merely to ensure the Olympic board is acting in accordance to their written vision, a vision I fear they have drifted from. "If you snooze you lose."

Human nature would ensure we voters could influence the Games by peer pressure alone, long before we  ever got to the point of voting with our feet. It's like how lobbyists are so highly paid.

* * * * *

Formulating values: It's "easy" in that not too much time is needed; it's "hard" because dialogue is needed. Fortunately, in a democracy with free speech, dialogue is an acceptable burden. For example, periodically society must ask, "What is education?" And every winter pagans and atheists join in pondering the "true meaning of Christmas." During the gap between the Games we could ask, "What is the meaning of the Olympics..." or we could just sleep instead. Here in the West, where we enjoy great power of free speech, we also have great responsibility to the rest of the world. And if that sounds familiar, it's because I got it off of Spiderman.

We can't expect non-democracies to spend more time hammering out Olympic values that we ourselves do. There is a certain East African nation, which shall be nameless. According to a rumor I read, two Olympic runners from there innocently plotted. They decided the first runner would sacrifice  himself: He would run too fast, thus burning out himself and the other competitors. Then the second athlete would go on to win the medal for their country.

Is that your vision too? Of athletes "sacrificing" themselves and competing "for their country?" Maybe so, but originally there was no playing of any national anthem at the winner's podium.

Should Olympians be the best "amateurs" in the world, or, the best "athletes?" If the latter, then by all means use professionals, such as the U.S. Dream Team, but understand this: The (basketball) Dream Team might walk away from excited naive Olympians at the athlete's village, preferring to be with each other in a hotel. Remember?

If your cultural touchstone for the Games is "professionals" then remember too that professionals are treated by their owners, managers and coaches in such a way that the pros feel forced to unionize. Pros don't "play" to "train their character."

Do you think the Olympics should ignore host country laws? The court in Vancouver,  before 2010, (see my other Olympic essays) found that Canadian skiers "were discriminated against" but that the IOC was outside Canada's jurisdiction.

* * * * *

I feel no need to give you any answers here about values, visions and goals. The strength, and the purpose, of board meetings is not unanimity of thought but dialogue. It is such dialogue, among citizens, that "close-minded" terrorists misinterpret as being the weakness of democracy. Not so. It is in fact our strength. It takes time for values and constraints to be finely tuned; it may take months, as my own board needed, but surely this tuning process can't be done "for us" by some patronizing Leader-Ayatollah at lightening speed. No blitzkrieg, the German word for "lightning war."

If warfare, and the Olympics, are too important to leave to the generals, then it follows that having vision and perspective is too important to leave to the common soldiers and athletes of the rank and file. (Not until they retire to the board.) Like corporate middle managers they are too busy to be pondering. As folk wisdom has it, you won't be musing about swamp hydro-gradients when you are up to your hips in alligators.

I knew an Olympian who was too busy: my roommate. He had been to the summer Games in Seoul, was banned from the next Games for taking drugs, and, when I knew him, he was training again. We talked, as young roommates do. Queerly, he didn't know how the battle of Marathon, which saved democracy for the world, had inspired the Olympic run. Stranger still, he didn't know that, by policy, it was only the media, and never the official Olympic committee, that tallied up the medals by nation.

What he and I never discussed was this: Are the young Olympians a means to an end, or an end in themselves?

It's late... Tonight, as the rain patters on my solid roof, I would ask him: Shall we retire off to bed for four years? Or stay up to talk?

Sean Crawford,
During the Vancouver Games of Ice and Snow
Calgary, Alberta 203

~For Olympics and Feminism see my essay of March 2013

~Everything I know about Boards that Make a Difference is from John Carver's book with the Jossey-Bass publishers, 1991. I have just today sent away for his expensive revised third edition "with a 100,000 copies sold."

~For more on lobbyists, see my essay Lobbyists archived September 2010.

~Update: Now it's Canada that has a "dream team" equivalent—the National Hockey League players. With only ten months to go before the Games, according to yesterday's CBC radio, they have a freight load of special demands, including wanting special accommodations that the other Olympians would not have. Obviously the "players" do not see themselves as fellow Olympians—so why do they bother attending the Games?

~Calgary Sun movie writer Jim Slotek, on Feb 18, 2014, p. 27, wrote regarding the movie Miracle (2004) ...Best line (and argument against NHLers playing) is the closing narrative: "THe U.S. began using professional athletes at the games… Dream teams… (But) now that we have dream teams, we seldom ever get to dream."

~I suppose a gracious sportsman a) shakes hands with opponents, and b) leaves a blog comment.

~I suspect New York City does charge for Sunday parking. I recently read a New York lady's blog where every single one of her friends and acquaintances, which included Jews, were atheists. She kept her church attendance "in the closet," even when someone ran into her on the sidewalk one Sunday morning when she was all dressed up. To a midwest kid like me this is sure a different scene.

No comments:

Post a Comment