WL Insider: Our Man in London

Looking in the rear-view to chart the road ahead. (With video)

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Photo by Sarah & Austin Houghton-Bird via Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, AUGUST 20 — It’s hard to believe that the London Olympics have officially closed.

For me, they were the culmination of four hard years of work, preparation and dedication for an event, which ultimately passed by blindingly fast. In reality, and with the growing benefit of hindsight, I’m not sure which went by faster — the 15 days I was in London for the Olympics, or the four years I spent preparing for them. Such is the pace of life, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down in the slightest.

After any big event, project or contract closes in our agency, I always compile an “After Action Report,” or AAR, which allows me to objectively assess what did and didn’t go right, or according to plan, or what needs to be modified the next time around. It is a hyper-annotated process that brings out my inner-most OCD moments. One of the components of the AAR is a section tabbed “Observations.” This is an area that may or may not have necessarily had any relevance, much less impact, on the project itself, but were things that I noticed nonetheless. While I’m not about to post our agency AAR for London, I would like to share some of the items included among my Observations:

1. Sometimes we cheer for countries. Sometimes we just cheer for human beings.

Nationalistic pride runs through everyone at the Olympics. If you think face-painted super fans, tailgating in an NFL parking lot on a fall afternoon is the height of sports fandom, then the Olympics would blow you away. There are no Raider Nation spiked shoulder pads or ill-advised parking lot beer pong tournaments at the Olympics. It is simply the overarching and overwhelming energy harnessed on a global level that leaves your ears ringing, even on a silent walk to the stadium before the Olympic Park every morning.

It’s not about cheering for a team; you’re cheering for your country. National pride is at an all-time high, regardless of whether you’re an athletics juggernaut like the United States in a heated competition with China for the most Gold medals and the most overall medals won, or you’re on the other end of the spectrum like Sierra Leone with only three athletes at the games. National pride knows no boundaries and it is neither limited nor bolstered by the number of medals or competitors your country fields. There are certain moments where we put down our flags, and we stand and cheer for a competitor we’ve never heard of, from a country we probably can’t even find on a map.

Why? Because it’s the triumph of the human spirit that is on full display, as 11,000 athletes, representing over 7 billion people, come together over the course of 17 days in the spirit of competition.

2. Races are watched. History is witnessed.

As I said in a previous column after Phelps’ record-breaking 19th Olympic medal — races are watched, history is witnessed. And there were many historic moments at this year’s Games, whether it was Michael solidifying his place in history, or Bolt proving his own legion of doubters wrong, or the Brits making good on their country’s effort to have a record medal haul. Phelps’ win was one of those moments that had everyone in London talking. Just like I referenced the Challenger, and 9/11 as “where were you when” moments in my life, Michael created a new moment in that panoply for me.

Where were you when the greatest Olympic athlete of all time won one final race, and then climbed out of the pool and walked away from the sport at the height of his greatness? Where was I, you ask?

I was a witness.

3. Sport is the mile marker for social change.

As a global population, there is no better comparative social marker than lining countries up shoulder to shoulder.

Heading into Beijing in 2008, the talk was over human rights issues and the impact that being under the international magnifying glass might have on China’s closed-door policy on human rights issues. Four years later, and on the heels of the “Arab Spring,” much of the attention going into the London Games was on the gender disparity between men and women from MENA region countries.

Perhaps it was residual fire from the monumental spring political change, or the 50th anniversary of Title IX here in the U.S. and the impact it has had globally, but there was an unwavering focus placed on women competing in these games. Despite years of extrinsic pressure and criticism, several MENA nations prohibited the participation of women athletes in the Olympic Games. Yet, 2012 saw a historic event in the closing of the gap in gender equality in sports: For the first time in Olympic history, Saudi Arabia allowed women to compete in the Games and sent two women athletes to London. Along with Brunei’s five women, that meant that 2012 marked the first Olympics where at least one woman athlete represented every Olympic team competing in the Games. Other MENA countries such as the UAE, Afghanistan and Iran also sent women athletes and the feeling of their inclusion (from over in London) was one of celebration and open arms.

Yet again, the Olympics provided the backdrop — and perhaps the impetus — for sweeping social change.

4. Social media changes everything.

In 2008, roughly 100 million people were on Facebook. Four short years later, when the 2012 Olympics rolled around, there were 900 million. At a growth rate of almost 1,000 percent, social media went through a period of unprecedented, explosive growth. For marketers, this was both good and bad.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) acting in the interests of its key sponsors — Visa, BMW and BP, each of whom paid over $100 million to be deemed “official sponsors of the Games” — enacted what became known as Rule 40. In short form, it prevented any Olympic athlete from Tweeting about one of their sponsors before, during or immediately after the Olympics, if they were not one of the “official” sponsors of the Olympic Games. This created a stir among the media and frenzied confusion among the athletes, since one of the potential consequences of such “tweets” (or “ambush marketing” as it was referred to by the IOC) was disqualification of the athlete from the Games entirely, and if they had already competed, it meant potential revocation of any medals earned or records broken.

Yes. This was the first Olympic Games with a Twitter penalty in place. The media called it a First Amendment violation. The corporations and marketers that were sponsoring these athletes and counting on an Olympic bump in sales from that sponsorship, were all left reeling.

In the end, nobody was disqualified (except for the Greek athlete who put out racially insensitive Tweets at the start of the Games) and Rule 40 made it through its first Olympic Games. In past Games, the regulations focused on drug use and even gender determination; these Games actually had a social media policing component.

At the pace and growth rate of technology, I can only imagine what will be in place for Rio 2016.

5. Lebron is predictably tall; is surprisingly tall.

I bumped into Lebron, while walking up London’s famed Saville Row. He’s listed at 6 feet 9 inches tall, and while I’m 6 feet 2 inches, I still felt like he had at least a foot on me. Then again, it’s Lebron, so you’d expect it, right? By contrast, Bill Gates — who was sitting behind us one night during swimming, and who is a massive sports fan — is unpredictably tall. While he didn’t tower over me like LBJ, the man is deceptively tall, loves his shorts, and can quote Olympic statistics much in the same way that Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Rainman” knew Judge Wapner’s television schedule. Perhaps that part isn’t so surprising after all.

6. At the end of the day, we’re all just fans.

Sitting in the stands with , , Bill Gates, and across from Will, Kate and Mrs. Obama, it becomes readily apparent, at the end of the day, that we’re all just fans. Nobody wants autographs. All of us are nerds, asking each other for photos, giving high fives, hugs, cheers and moments of camaraderie that you would never see and from a group of people that might otherwise never assemble together.

Why? Because at the end of the day, we’re all just fans.

7. Our accomplishments distinguish us, but our families define us.

Proctor & Gamble ran a series of commercials during the Olympics that centered around what it meant to be the mother of an Olympic athlete. The ad campaign focused on all of the early morning carpools, the grass-stained jersey scrubs, the endless days and nights sitting in the stands in the rain, and the years of endless love, support and encouragement, all of which culminated in turning that little kid with a lot of potential into a chiseled and statuesque young adult, competing on behalf of her country, at the highest level of sport. The subtle, underlying message was really two-fold: 1. That process was not the result of a Lotto ticket, which is to say it wasn’t scratch-off instant luck. It was years of dedication, hard work and forbearance. 2. As P&G aptly pointed out, it was a journey that each of those athletes didn’t make by themselves.

As an agent, and someone who is supposed to be unwaveringly objective and wholly unmoved and immune to such moments, one thing that always makes me smile, and on occasion even puts a lump in my throat. That moment occurs when an Olympic athlete finishes competing — medal or not — and finds her mom in the stands. Why? Because as Olympians, and as basic human beings, we are distinguished by our accomplishments, but we are defined by our families. Without our moms, each of us would never be much more than that gangly youth with grass stains and skinned knees.

Mom, YOU are the difference maker.

So as I return to “normal agency life” here in Washington, D.C. and prepare for the fall transition to our NFL clientele and Q4 end-of-year business, let me say it has been a pleasure to write for Washington Life Magazine during the 2012 London Olympics. With the thousands of hours of competition captured by the network television cameras, there were still so many nuanced moments that went by relatively unnoticed if you weren’t there, standing amongst the madness, hearing the cheers, watching the tears, feeling the energy, getting the goosebumps, and basking in the unity that comes from a global competition that’s only held once every four years.

As I look back on London, I do so with a big smile and fond memories, even as the Rio Games quickly approach on the horizon just ahead.

Yours in sport,

Doug Eldridge

Editor’s Note: Here’s a bit more on London from Doug.

Doug Eldridge Reporting from London 2012 from Washington Life Magazine on Vimeo.

Doug Eldridge is the founding president of DLE Agency, a full-service sports, entertainment and communications firm based in Washington, D.C. A lawyer by trade, Eldridge is a two-time Ironman finisher, and a longtime track and field athlete. His agency represents sports stars across the NBA, NFL, FIFA, UCI and IAAF as well as golf, fighting and motor sports athletes in addition to a Personalities Division, which includes musicians, among others. Eldridge provides mixed media and strategic communication consulting, and is frequently sought after for his sports analysis by various media outlets including NBC, ABC, CNN and Fox. For more updates, follow him on Twitter @DougEldridge and @DLEagency.

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