American Culture

Celebrating the heroes, damning the cheats, and always loving the game

Usain Bolt. 9.69 seconds.This Olympics, 2008, we mortals have been in the company of gods. Michael Phelps. Eight golds. Seven world records. Usain Bolt. Two golds. Two world records.

No-one who watched Usain Bolt actually break stride, look around, slow down and beat his chest in victory 15 METRES BEFORE THE LINE could have any doubt that you are watching a supreme athlete.

Athletes are the supreme example of physical genius. An injury – one that regular folk wouldn’t notice – is something that threatens to shave 0.2s from your finishing time. A massive difference in the world of competitive sport.

The difference between free people and collectivists is never so clear than at the Olympics. During the Cold War, the USSR treated the event as a political endeavour. Heroes were less important than the shear weight of medals that they built up. In this Olympics, the Chinese are no different. Their government-funded, highly-sophisticated sports schools mould some 370,000 students a year. It is no wonder that they are able to claim so many victories in so many sports.

Governments can make up in volume, what they lack in showmanship. But they do not create heroes. And we love watching heroes.

The joy of competition

Fairness means different things in different contexts. Many people were disappointed when Bolt showboated the last 15 meters of the 100m. “He should have given it everything. It cheats the viewer,” said many.

We hate it when athletes cheat. When they take performance enhancing drugs, or somehow get an unfair competitive advantage. We don’t mind that athletes can be assholes. That they can be full of shit and arrogant. We’ll forgive any amount of tom-foolery … as long as they are the best.

Then we celebrate them, throw them parades and name our children after them. They become our great role-models. They are invited to our schools. They tell our kids to believe in themselves and to give their moments of competition absolutely everything they’ve got.

We love it when great athletes try to psyche each other out. Faking an injury on the football field. Staring each other down. We tell each other that sport is as much a head-game as it is physical. Who’s going to crack under the pressure of the final, of millions of people all roaring the names of their heroes at the same time?

And we demand that competition. We want to see them suffer. We want to see them burn. We demand that it hurt. And that they overcome all this. For this is what makes a hero.

When athletes cheat, they discredit themselves, but not their sport. In 1998, the entire Festina cycling team was turfed out of the Tour de France. The tour has had a regular problem with doping. US hopeful, Floyd Landis, actually won the tour in 2006 before being stripped of his title. The competition is so ferocious that there are few sports that can claim to have no moments of travesty. From Maradona’s “Hand of God” in the 1986 Soccer World Cup, to the Chicago White Sox throwing the World Series in 1919, to Ben Johnson’s 100 meters in the 1988 Olympics.

But the lying and cheating does not, usually, discredit the sport itself. We love our favourite sports. Our passion is all. The athlete may be humiliated and punished, but the game goes on.

But it all breaks down

There is another breed of people who are supremely gifted. Astonishing athletes. But not of the body. These are athletes of society. The great businessmen and entrepreneurs.

They too compete at the highest level for fantastic stakes. The winners stand to make a fortune. But they stand alone.

Henry Ford, creator of the Ford Motor Company; Henry J Kaiser, creator of the HMO; Ray Kroc, the genius behind McDonalds; JP Morgan, investment banking hero. None loved. None celebrated. It is only in recent years that we have found some, a small handful, of great entrepreneurs we are prepared to celebrate. People like Richard Branson of the Virgin Group, or Steve Jobs of Apple. But their compatriots, who have achieved as much, been as creative and excellent – Bill Gates of Microsoft, Sam Walton of Wal-Mart – are loathed and hated.

The jews did itAnyone who has read Lance Armstrong’s “It’s not about the bike” could be left in any doubt about the concentration, ability and self-sacrifice required to win seven Tours de France. Neither would you be in any doubt that the man is an asshole and a prima donna. That doesn’t matter; he’s still a sporting hero.

Unlike Bill Gates and Microsoft, who is probably the most vilified man on the Internet (after George W Bush – not an entrepreneur).

Business is just as competitive as sport, if not more so. The stakes are as high, the margins as thin. It really does mean the difference between having a globally successful business if you choose to outsource your call-center to India, and going into Chapter 11. It really is important to have a good strategy, great marketing, supreme design and astonishing distribution. In which case you could have Apple or Wal-Mart or Tesco or Toyota. Or, they can be dragged down by bad management, following bullshit strategy and cheating their investors, like Enron or Parmalat.

Management fads are like coaching fads. Business strategy is like sporting strategy. It’s a head-game too. Can I out-psyche my competitors and my customers. How razor-thin can I walk the line to get ahead?

Like in a motor-race, the consequence of a fraction too fine can be awful.

But don’t ever doubt that the men and women who lead the world’s most successful companies are astonishing athletes who do what they do without applause and whose only means of measuring victory is the money in their pockets.

Maybe you think that the most outstanding business people are paid too much?

Steve Jobs of Apple earns around $ 122 million a year; Ray Irani of Occidental Petroleum earns around $ 86 million a year; Barry Diller of AIC earns $ 85 million … these are the top three highest-paid executives in 2007. The average remuneration of the CEOs of the 500 top companies is around $ 14 million a year.

In the same year, 2007, Tiger Woods was paid $ 100 million, Oscar de la Hoya, $ 43 million, Phil Mickelson $ 42 million. Yet the highest paid executives create, and sustain, thousands of jobs. How many jobs does Woods sustain?

So, why the friction? Why the loathing of our greatest entrepreneurs?

Adoring the game, loving the sport, celebrating the hero

There is a difference, of course. Partially, it is because executives mostly do what they do outside of public sight. It’s also because athletes don’t compete with you, and your only connection with them is on television.

Try and imagine what it might be like if every walk to the shops became a race against Usain Bolt? If your swim at the public pool was a challenge against Michael Phelps? If your every single moment you were confronted with the Olympian efforts of the best in the world?

Chances are you might start finding watching sports on television downright alarming.

Business is tactile. It’s immediate. The highly-paid executive is making a profit when you’re buying his product. You might resent that. You’ve seen the big-deal business get-togethers. Steve Jobs in front of thousands of people, launching the iPhone? Steve Ballmer pumping up a crowd at Microsoft? How about them oil executives discussing their exceptional profits on CNN Money while your tank of gas goes through the roof?

Makes you angry, doesn’t it? ‘Cos there – right there – it’s not a game. It’s your wallet. How dare they get so rich at my expense?

Except it isn’t.

Cards on the table. I love business. I adore it. The minutiae of pricing and packaging and distribution. Of design. Of cutting off a competitor. When Pantene was due to launch in South Africa and ran three months of adverts announcing the fact that their shampoo was going to change the country, I absolutely cheered when Organics – a rival shampoo maker – released A WEEK BEFORE PANTENE LAUNCHED a promotion selling TWO LITRES of shampoo for next to nothing! It’s genius. It’s brilliant. I still grin when I think about it.

I mean, sure, the Pantene investors must have felt like they’d received a groin-shot. There’s your expensive campaign undercut at the last minute by people who ran out to buy liters of your main competitor’s product. They wouldn’t need more shampoo for months and your whole launch strategy collapses right there…

You don’t think consumers benefited from this? Of course they did. The pure, unconstrained competition between business rivals lowered prices and increased quality.

The only time that it doesn’t is when some distortion in the market protects an incumbent. Either when they cheat, or when the game is rigged.

That is reason to hate the cheater, not the game itself.

Cheaters sometimes win

There are two ways the game can be rigged. Either a company can outright lie and use their size and muscle to bleed their competitors and consumers. Like Enron, like Parmalat.

Or, the government can skew the game in their favour. When the US government gives direct subsidies to the biggest farmers, they bias the market against small farmers. When lawmakers subsidize coal-plants and oil-producers, they distort the game against alternative fuels. When subsidies prop up car-makers and tariffs are levied against foreign manufacturers, it raises the prices of vehicles for consumers and props up weak competitors. When steel-makers get tax cuts, then other people have to pay higher taxes to make up the difference.

There are lots of ways that business is biased.

Instead of blaming business as a whole, blame the cheating. Work and campaign and challenge politicians to make businesses sweat and compete. And demand that competition. We want to see them suffer. We want to see them burn. We demand that it hurt. And that they overcome all this. For this is what makes a hero.

Yes, that does mean that some jobs will be outsourced to other countries but, you know what, it will result in new jobs that didn’t exist before. Look at sport. Usain Bolt’s victory does not deny other people their best times in the same event.

I’ll give you an example from my own research in South America in 2004. In Lima, Peru there is a garment district called Gamarra. In the 1960s, the Peruvian government decided to kick-start the economy with a state-driven textiles initiative. They took over this suburb in Lima and set it up. It didn’t work, becoming a desolate hell-hole frequented by gangsters. In 1983, they gave up and handed it over to private enterprise. There are now 18,000 businesses there. 600,000 people visit the place a day driving revenues of $1.2 billion annually in 34 city blocks. The government, as that link shows, claims the victory, but the people I interviewed in the business sector shook their heads. It was all them.

The lesson is this: when you sit on something and protect it, you exclude the opportunity for something miraculous to happen. The Chinese control their sport, they win lots of medals, but miracles don’t happen.

When you protect an entire industry you do so at the expense of what might happen if you didn’t. The Soviet Union protected their entire society from competition and change. When the walls came down, Westerners were living in the 21st century and they were living in the 19th.

There’s a joke about Soviet motor-cars. A worker has saved up for years and has finally been allowed to apply to get a motor-car. He walks to the nearest motor-factory and queues for several hours to buy. Eventually the factory foreman stands before him. He pays. “Come back in seven years on the 15th of July,” he is told. He isn’t asked for what type of car he’d like, or what colour it would be. He will take what the factory produces.

“Should I come in the morning or in the afternoon,” he asks.

“Why should that matter?” asks the foreman, in surprise.

“Well, that’s the day the plumber said he would come round to fix the washing machine and I don’t want to miss him,” says the man.

Loving it anyway

Who is the most popular Chinese athlete? Yao Ming, who plays basketball for the Houston Rockets in the NBA. And despite all the Chinese victories at the games, Usain Bolt winning the 100 meters for himself and for Jamaica will stand out for me as the highlight of the 2008 Olympics.

Yes, businessmen cheat. Yes, it’s fucking outrageous. Yes, it should be stopped and the bastards should go to jail. But it doesn’t damage my love of the game. Of business as the highest social ideal I can think of, just as Olympic sport is the highest physical ideal I can imagine.

It buzzesI love watching a great athlete perform wonders. My heart soars when I listen to the finest musicians perform at their peak. My blood pounds when great actors tear the screen up and make me celebrate their craft. And when I hold a brilliant product – like an iPhone, or a Gillette Fusion, or a Mazda MX5, or a DisaVascular coronary stent, or even a pair of Salomon hiking boots – I am fully aware that human beings made this. That someone had vision, and genius and could bear the pain of getting it to market, of defying the odds of failure, of dreaming big, of pushing their limits, that it is here, that it exists, and that – should I want it – I can own it.

You can’t say the same about a sporting victory. No matter how brilliant, I can’t buy it. But I can buy a phone, I can buy a camera. I can support my heroes materially, and directly.

I take the competition of business no less seriously than does the greatest sporting fan. I celebrate the victories, I sob through the defeats, I damn my enemies, I declaim the cheats.

And I love the game.

8 replies »

  1. Eloquent post. Re Bolt, it cracks me up he has the same name as Saddam.

    From Yahoo Answers, somebody wrote (can’t vouch):

    He’s not secretly muslim, he’s openly muslim, and proud of it. His parents converted to islam more than 25 years ago. Usain sounds like Hussein because it’s more or less the same name, just the letter “H” isnt pronounced in Jamaican dialect.

    Guess that means Obama can’t be seen congratulating him.

  2. John Gall, yeah, sorry about that, and I can’t see US-based sites so can’t offer links there either, although http://www.nbcolympics.com/ is supposed to be covering it.

    And Russ, I imagine that if Obama was seen congratulating Bolt BEFORE spending at least a week cleaning Michael Phelps car, it would be a deal-breaker for most Americans 😉

  3. Very illuminating, especially the part about Gamarra.

    I appreciate that you condemn cheaters in business. But I still think 90% of business persons get up in the morning, leave the house, and walk under an imaginary arch that reads: “Abandon all ethics, ye who enter here.”

    They feel that capitalism is a separate universe where cut-throat competition ultimately leads to prosperity for all. To those of us who stand outside that world (and, admittedly, don’t understand it that well), this strikes us as justification and denial.

    The havoc that’s finally come to fruition as a result of “free” markets bears witness to that.

  4. If, Russ, what you said were true there would not be such a thing as a First World Country…we would all be living much closer to subsistance level.

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