Ten Lessons from China's Olympics Preparations

It looks like much of the gold that was brought to China for this year’s Olympics will remain there after the games’ end. Michael Phelps’ legendary 8 gold medals for the US team helped the Americans bring up their count but not nearly enough to keep them in the top spot for winning gold since the fall of the Soviet empire. Even if you discount a few from China for biased judging, they still won this year’s Lycra War. This 29th Olympiad became China’s great coming out party. Everyone was invited and entertained while these enthusiastic hosts met their ambitious goals for the August event.

There are some important lessons we can learn from what some call China’s great awakening. This relates to Napoleon’s account to his European colleagues that China was a sleeping tiger – one he figured should best be left asleep while his forces agitated in Europe and the New World. Since Napoleon is no longer around, we decided to fill in and take some careful notes from our experience in China these past several days. We have come up with the following ten lessons from China’s Olympic preparations:

1.    Plan

China had a plan that went into high gear from the moment they learned the country won the bid in 2001 to host the 2008 Games. An important aspect was the focus on addressing the approximately 120 sports the country had never achieved any measurable success in such as swimming, track and field and water events.

The country and organizing host city engaged in massive planning efforts to ensure the infrastructure was in good shape. Fabulous venues, subways, airports, highways and railways were built, dirty factories shut down, and automobiles restricted. The IOC suggested China went a bit too far in its planning that went overboard in some aspects of security and media control. The IOC had to publicly tell the hosts not to obstruct reporters.

Plan well and start planning far enough in advance to achieve your goals, however lofty your goals may seem when they first start to take shape.

2.    Slogans for communicating the strategy

“China Project 119” was a simple and clear slogan for communicating the strategy for China’s need to concentrate special resources on the 119 events in which the country was the weakest.  “Impossible is nothing” was an Adidas co-sponsor slogan that became one of the main public slogans used for boosting the Games to the general public. Use such slogans if you have a need to communicate ideas to large numbers of people.

3.    Public buy-in

Those who suggest that these Olympic Games were primarily a propaganda gimmick that came from a committee located in Beijing do not understand the Chinese people or the country very well. One would need to go deep into the countryside to find someone who did not have an awareness of or interest in this major national undertaking. Even mountain goats in the Tibet region had Olympic rings painted onto them! If that was purely propaganda, it does not explain how traffic patterns in diverse cities changed in response to events in Beijing with crowds gathered around television sets in the cities and around radios on the trains during various events.

On the other hand, the Hong Kong crowd seemed indifferent in comparison to the mainland Chinese. Olympic flags, T-shirts and paraphernalia are everywhere although it is hard to know how much of it is authentic and from IOC approved suppliers. The Chinese buy-in was huge and you should make sure that you have whatever buy-in you need for your great undertakings.

4.    Resources

There was about $40 billion dollars invested in this year’s Olympic Games by the Chinese. Some claim about $6 million was additionally spent on each medal-winning athlete. The country has only recently become able to afford this level of spending but did not appear to cut corners on costs. Put up the required resources for your project, plus support and reward your key players well is the message here.

5.    Know yourself and the competitive landscape

The Chinese Olympic leadership set its sights very high – taking aim at the American gold medal count as being the only target worth beating. The sights were high but the leadership understood its own strengths and weaknesses well enough to know that it was an achievable goal. It also knew the strengths and weaknesses of the competition. The American team had its traditional great individual capabilities which Phelps demonstrated to an extreme. The Chinese were able to overcome this through numbers, sifting through a quarter of the world’s population to create its talent pool.

6.    Bring in the best

The country brought in about 50 top coaches from a dozen countries to give their team the edge needed to make it over the top. This comes on top of the 2500 coaches China has sent to over 100 countries beginning in the 1960s. Great planners, architects, engineers, administrators and professionals of all types were brought in or consulted on the myriad aspects of the Games. As an example, China had global accounting powerhouse PricewaterhouseCoopers working on medal count spreadsheets.

7.    Great propaganda

Starting several years ahead of time, a 24-hour national television channel was launched featuring Chinese athletes winning events and preparing for the upcoming Games. It is hard to see how this could not inspire athletes and interest the public. This programming was continually available considering that there are relatively few television channels available in China with about half of them still dedicated to old Chinese martial arts based movies and shows. Currently, the other half are dedicated to the Olympics and news. This is only one example of the positive propaganda used to generate and sustain interest in these events. There are many others. The lesson here is to deploy effective propaganda to support your initiatives.

8.    Sufficiently developed infrastructure

Along with new railways, airports and roadways, the whole nation’s plumbing system was reworked as part of the preparations for the Games. Entire river systems were altered with water, sewage and industrial wastewater pollution standards substantially upgraded. Ten years ago, finding a relatively clean western-style toilet complete with paper was a treat to find. Now it is the norm. The lesson here is to ensure you have sufficient infrastructure in place that you won’t find yourself in an uncomfortable place due to lack of suitable facilities for whatever you are trying to accomplish.

9.    Strong motive

The Chinese have accomplished amazing things in their recent development into a modern society. The Games represent a great opportunity for individual athletes, communities and the country as a whole to show off in a constructive way. This strong motivation is reinforced by the clearly aligned need to continue promoting Chinese interests internally and abroad. Whether your primary motive is showing off or something else, make sure it is a strong one that is clearly aligned with your interests.

10.    Selection, screening and training process

CBS News correspondent Barry Peterson recently reported that “Nine-year-old Zhang Huiman is on the lonely road to Olympic gold, running 20 miles a day preparing for the games of 2020.” Peterson also reported that the nation is “so obsessed with Olympic gold that it is training 200,000 handpicked kids in state-run sports boarding schools. It’s the same system the Soviets used to train gold medalists like Maria Filatova in their Cold-War sports duel with the United States.” The systems and processes are robust. When Chinese star athlete Liu Xiang failed to clear his first hurdle in Beijing, the massive selection, screening and training process ensured that China’s Olympic aspirations were not dashed. China’s numerous gold-winning weightlifters, divers and gymnasts were more than able to compensate. Have a similarly reliable process for achieving your goals.

We’ll need to see how much of the gold China ends up with at the end of the Games. We already know it will be more than the Americans, who have been dominant since the former Soviet team divided into multiple countries. If you’ve learned any other lessons from China’s Olympic preparations, please share them in the comments.

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