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Leadership lessons: Reflections on Rio

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Former Paralympic champion and commentator at the Rio 2016 Paralympics, Lord Chris Holmes, highlights leadership lessons learned from the Games.

Less than four weeks before the opening ceremony of the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, there was a real chance the Games would be cancelled: not watered-down, less than it could have been, but literally no Games at all. The reason was a complete lack of interest in the Paralympics by the organising committee’s top team.

Parlous planning and a lack of understanding and interest in the Paralympics had resulted in ticket sales of 12%, a lack of sponsors and a Games fighting for its life, with many nations unable to attend due to non-payment of travel grants. The budget had been plundered to fix avoidable problems in the Olympics – the most crass (and colourful) being the accidental dyeing of the diving pool ‘grass green’ instead of ‘cool blue’. 

Taking responsibility

Worse still, all this was foreseeable. There was no interest in learning from London; our path (in the London 2012 Paralympic Games) wasn’t entirely smooth either – but instead a misguided desire to “do it ourselves”.

A few years ago, sometime after Rio won the right to host the Games, the chief operating officer at the time told me confidently: “We don’t need a specific person on the director’s team; we are all responsible for the Paralympics.” Very true, they were – responsible not for tickets being sold out but for a sell-out of the Games.

The economic backdrop was blamed, and had this been the case, who wouldn’t have sympathised? But it was not. Though the Olympics faced some cuts, they were as mere flesh wounds compared with the slicing, the slaughtering, the hanging-drawing-and-quartering of the Paralympic budget.

Yet, in the midst of this nightmare, heroes emerged. First, Eduardo Paes, Mayor of Rio and Paralympic supporter, who secured an additional £36m in funding plus £24m in sponsorship from state-run companies at the last minute, to fund the Games. Alongside this were the people at the sharp end, at the venues, working, despite decimated budgets and staffing cuts; working night and day to get their part of the Games in place. 

High-performance culture

When the Games began, the people came in their hundreds of thousands; the Cariocas (locals) came. It proved the Games could have been a sell out had there been commitment, focus and a ticketing strategy from the outset; it proved the Games would have thrived in Latin America, had there been leadership from the start. It also proved that, in adversity, heroes emerge, and positivity can shine through.

Our Great British Paralympians rose from third place in the medals table at the London Games to second place in Rio, a feat never previously achieved by a host nation at the following Paralympic Games.

How was this result achieved? In spite of the troubles, the budget butchery, the disinterest and disrespect, these athletes retained their focus. They smashed it. 

Leadership lessons

The Rio Paralympic Games proved that even in the darkest of days, there are still practical things that can be done. The people made a difference, and enabled the Paralympic flame to burn bright. Rio was a good Games; frustratingly, with effective leadership, it could have been a great Games. Let this be a reminder to us of the value of having a vision, a mission and a strategy upon which to build something truly spectacular.

To sum up lessons learned: no matter what level you’re at, you have leadership responsibility. If you want to enable – to empower – real sustainable change, someone must be the ultimate lead. If you claim that it’s everyone’s responsibility, it will quickly become no-one’s responsibility. If you want success, you must build a high-performance culture from the outset and accept nothing less. If you have the budget, don’t give anyone else the combination to the safe, it won’t be there when you return!

Lord Chris Holmes

By Lord Chris Holmes

Chris is Lord of Richmond and the UK’s most successful Paralympic swimmer. He was also the director of Paralympic integration at the London Olympic and Paralympic Games 2012. www.chrisholmes.co.uk | @LordCHolmes

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