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My takeaway for entrepreneurs from the Winter Olympics: Fail-forward-fast, and fulfill the promise

February 25th, 2010 · No Comments · Talents, Innovators

Yao BinIn a recent powwow, I was asked about my takeaway for entrepreneurs from the Winter Olympics. As I was starting to discuss the make-up of a champion, mentally ranking key characteristics, I changed gears and realized that what struck me the most, ultimately, was the victory of Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo in pair figure skating. Not so much because they ended decades of Russian domination, not so much because they won (after all, they have been World champions for a while), not so much because of what this Gold Medal meant to them personally, but because of what it meant to their coach, Yao Bin.

In the early eighties, a Chinese pair of figure skaters, Yao Bin and Luan Bo, kept failing (sometimes miserably), regularly finishing last in international competitions – the 1980 World Competition in Dortmund where the audience laughed at them, the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo… They did improve somewhat every year (it seems that when they first showed up on the world scene, they had learned their moves from pictures only), but there was no way for them to catch up. Yet, as embarrassing or even humiliating as such experiences may have been, they resulted in phenomenal feedback and stimulus to action. Yao Bin became a coach, and, as early as 1999, his pair of skaters, Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, won a Silver Medal in Helsinki at the World Championships, having already impressed audiences at their first Olympics in 1998 in Nagano (where they finished fifth). Since then, the couple’s career has been a series of successes culminating in the Vancouver Olympics with a Gold Medal.  A huge success for Yao Bin, who also coached the Silver Medalists and the couple in fifth place. As a Chinese proverb goes: “Failure is not falling down but refusing to get up.” 

Tamara Moskvina, arguably one of the most successful coaches in the history of pair figure skating, said in a 2003 interview, “we [Russian skaters] are so successful because we have developed traditions and because we work in the same manner as we have in the past.” This may have been true. The lesson that entrepreneurs may want to take from the history of Yao Bin could be slightly different, however. In addition to demonstrating that failures are only steps towards success, his career shows that the “same old ways” don’t work endlessly and that traditions are secure only inasmuch as there isn’t somebody around who wants to tear them apart to reinvent the future. Listen to the journalists who (courteously) commented the 1984 short program of Yao Bin and Luan Bo. Clearly, they didn’t envision that China’s “developmental stage” would be so short !

(Incidentally, Chen Lu was the first Chinese to win an Olympic medal – Bronze- in 1994 in Lillehammer).

Marylene Delbourg-Delphis

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