From Olympic Glory to the MBA Masses

From Olympic Glory to the MBA Masses

In the time it takes most MBA students to pull out their notebooks and iPads for a class on microeconomic theory, Usain Bolt would have run clear across campus and been in a cab on his way to discuss his latest lucrative sponsorship offer. At least he would if he were enrolled in business school, which he’s not. But should he be? Could the world’s fastest man do with a little training in the finer arts of financial strategy, if for no other reason than to ensure the estimated $20 million a year he is currently pulling in through sponsorship deals finds a safe home beyond his embryonic restaurant chain?

Although Olympic medalists often seem more interested in getting in front of TV cameras than in front of business school professors, a number of high-profile winners have seen the wisdom of making the move from the podium to the classroom. Basketball gold, Shaquille O’Neal, for example, followed up his success with an MBA from the University of Phoenix. Silver medal fencer, Keeth Smart, also took the MBA route, this time at Columbia Business School, to build a career in banking. In Canada, the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University is currently home to the country’s gold medal skier, Jennifer Heil. And in the U.K., silver medal-winning runner Kriss Akabusi has just signed up to take an Executive MBA at Ashridge Business School this fall.

While successful athletes aren’t exactly a dime a dozen on business school campuses, many of the leading thinkers in sport and athletics appear to believe some form of organized transition from the stadium to the world of business might be more than just a good idea. “Most spend their lives immersed in what’s going to happen in the immediate future, that all-important next game or event,” says Damian Hopley, who runs one of the U.K.’s top sporting groups, the Rugby Players Association. “But eventually, even for the greatest, the cycle is going to come to an end. And while they all seem to want to go on to coaching or some sort of commentary role in the media, there are simply not enough roles of these types to go round.”

The challenge, of course is how you go from being top of the world to, well, just another student and potentially surrounded by people who know much more about business and how to execute it than you do.

“It’s certainly very challenging to go right back to the beginning after achieving so much in sport, almost back to childhood, which was the last time I was learning completely new skills,” says Desautels’ Heil. “All the time I was skiing I had a very narrow focus—to be the best in the world and with just 30 seconds to achieve it. But now I’ve got the opportunity to step back, explore new things, and figure out where I want to go next. And that’s a lot of fun.”

But if, like me, your best time for running around the track would place you squarely at the back of the village sports day field (or in the case a downhill ski run, squarely on my backside), the Olympics provides another inspiration for substituting case studies for circuit training. The unsung heroes of the Games are all those behind-the-scenes coaches who combine many of the skills that business schools look to develop in their students—people management skills to identify and motivate talent, financial skills to handle budgets, marketing and negotiation skills for sponsorship deals, and data analysis to assess performance and analyze the competition.

So perhaps we should also be looking for inspiration from the people who got the star athletes to the pinnacle of sport in the first place. Bolt’s agent, Ricky Simms, for example, might have spent his formative years as a promising 800- and 1,500-meter runner, but he can hardly have regretted his decision to go back to school and then set up the sports management company, PACE, which handles not only Bolt but also the 10,000-meter gold medal winner Mo Farah. And Dave Brailsford, the man behind the U.K.’s Bradley Wiggins, Chris Hoy, Laura Trott, and the rest of the most successful Olympic cycling team in modern history, has those magical three letters, MBA, after his name.

Swifter, higher, stronger? Try smarter, sharper, richer.

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