It's hard to deny the inspiration the Olympic Games provide every other year, whether for children aspiring to be future Olympians, weekend warriors hoping for glory in their group bike ride, or recreational age groupers looking for a personal best. Certainly for those who are not athletically inclined, the games still offer an unparalleled combination of entertainment and sporting performance across a variety of domains.
And while the raw athleticism is inspiring in itself, the games have always offered a showcase of innovation and entrepreneurship. Innovation often comes at the pinnacle of performance--from the most demanding and competitive user or customer pushing the envelope of performance. This inspiration can drive subsequent benefits to the rest of us, including recreational athletes and weekend warriors alike.
From Dick Fosbury who pioneered the "Fosbury Flop" in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico to David Berkoff's underwater kick dubbed the "Berkoff Blast" 20 years ago, entrepreneurial athletes experiment and sometimes land on innovations that change human possibility. More recently, witness the efforts of Indiana University alumnus and now gold medalist high jumper Derek Drouin, who changed his technique to jump even higher despite years of successful competition.
The roots of the Olympics and "firsts" go way back. Who does not harken back to the hero of the first recorded Olympic Games in 776 B.C., the Greek cook Coroebus, who won the footrace called the Stade (root for the modern stadium)? And of course, Heracles (Hercules), son of Zeus, who is reported to have wrestled his father in an even earlier contest. One can imagine that lost to history is the first Wheaties box featuring said Heracles and the innovative wrestling move which, with a clever agent, could have been known as the "Heracles Hip Roll!"
Some innovation is in treatment. For example, marking the conversation this year (and bodies of some Olympic swimmers) is the practice of "cupping." You may have seen athletes with those circular welts on their bodies--adornment which will likely be all the rage after the 2016 Olympics. Cupping may be a centuries-old practice for some cultures, but the "innovation" is newly adopted in some circles (pun intended). Therapists place cups on a patient's body, sucking the air out of the cups to create pressure. Some say this helps athletes recover more quickly, stimulating blood flow and facilitating repair of damaged tissue. No matter what you think about the technique, when it's showcased on an international stage, you can't help but notice. Might these be branded the "Phelps Welts" with do-it-yourself home kits to follow? (I copyright this idea).
Other innovations are product driven and create new industries--like the aerodynamic cycling gear dreamed up and used by Boardman and Obree in cycling and likeTour de France winner Greg LeMond's "aero bars" that he used so successfully in the final time trial for the 1989 race. Similarly, the University of Florida's training staff originated GatorAde as the early sports drink to replace sweat that has since spurred a multibillion-dollar market that allows us to replace not only fluids but needed salts and electrolytes when engaging in endurance sports.
Where would we be without the Roger Bannisters of the world? As a medical student and runner, his experimentation with new techniques like interval and lactate threshold training led to the first sub-four-minute mile. We can learn from these new techniques and training methods from top competitors and benefit from offerings from innovative companies to reach new levels ourselves. Entrepreneurship, innovation, and human achievement are inextricably linked--both in sport and in business--for the benefit of all.
I, myself, have completed multiple Ironman events and am inspired by top athletes, but I confess, a four minute half-mile would be medal-worthy for me right now!