The Road to Rio
A look back at the Summer Olympics.
Every four years, there are two versions of the Olympic Games that take place: the one that plays out on NBC primetime, and the one that takes place over the course of three years, 11 months, and 13 days prior to the 17 days of Olympic competition. The latter is what we call the Road to Rio.
For the United States, the 2016 Rio Olympics were one of historic proportions. We fielded a record 550 athletes and won a staggering 121 Medals, including 46 Gold, 37 Silver, and 38 Bronze. Perhaps even more amazing is that the dominant U.S. women accounted for 61 of those total Medals and 27 Gold! (The latter was equal to the entire Gold Medal count by Great Britain—both men and women combined!)
While Olympic success is often judged by wins, losses, and the color of the medal, the real story is usually told away from the camera and outside of the awards podium. When it comes to the Olympics, it’s more about the journey than the actual destination. Unlike a Big Four team sport in the United States (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) if you get injured, miss the big shot, or simply fall short in your play-off run, there is no next year for Olympians; it’s a lifetime pursuit with no guarantee of a second trip in another four years. In that regard, the destination is the culmination of a life’s work and it plays out in dramatic fashion.
Growing up, we learn about history from books, films, and other sources. [I’m clearly dating myself, but growing up I watched films on looped film projectors with a pull-down screen, all the way up until I started high school, at which point schools transitioned to VHS cassettes. The TVs were heavy enough to be a dead-weight on one of the World’s Strongest Man competitions, seen on ESPN runs at 2am. If you’re reading this, chances are you remember those days as well.]
Point being, everyone reads and learns about history, but it’s rare that we actually get to see history being written. In Rio, I was privileged to see just that…I was privileged to be a witness.
On Monday night, we watched first hand as Katie Ledecky smashed the World Record in the 400m Freestyle en-route to claiming another individual Gold Medal. Chatting with her family afterwards, everyone was smiles, hugs, and high fives, as victories—no matter how much they might seem like a foregone conclusion—are never taken for granted at the Olympic Games. Katie herself seems as grounded as she is gifted and I attribute that in large part to her parents, her brother, and her coach, Bruce Gemmell, whom we represent. This was but one of five Olympic medals that Ledecky would eventually claim in Brazil.
When it comes to Ledecky, it wasn’t just the wins or the unfathomable times that had everyone talking, it was the sheer range over which she exerted her dominance: 100m Silver (4×100 Relay), 200m Gold (200m Freestyle), 200m Gold (4x200m Relay), 400m Gold (400m Freestyle), 800m Gold (800m Freestyle). It’s hard to put this range in context, perhaps the best example would be if Usain Bolt—in addition to his wins in the 100 and 200m—then also won the 400, 800, and 1500, before lacing up his racing flats and claiming a medal in the 26.2 mile road marathon as well. Seem hard to imagine? Good, now you’re starting to appreciate the scope and scale of her accomplishments.
On that same night at the pool, we cheered wildly as Michael Phelps cruised to a Gold Medal in the 4x100m Freestyle Relay. For Phelps it was yet another Gold added to his name in the record books. The four-man U.S. team of 6’8 Nathan Adrian, 35-year old Anthony Irvin, and wunderkind Caeleb Dressel, joined MP on the medal stand and the enthusiasm and historical significance of that moment was not lost on any one in the sold-out 18,000 person arena. In the sporting landscape, you have Good, Great, and GOAT. Without question, Michael Phelps is the Greatest Of All Time. Many are good. Some are great. Only one can be considered the GOAT.
In many ways, Michael personifies my point about the journey outweighing the destination itself, when it comes to the Olympics. When you look at the path he’s had to walk since London 2012, it makes the specter and magnitude of his Rio performance all the more special. For all the records, races, and medals to his name, none were arguably any sweeter than those he brought home from Rio. Few athletes get to determine when or how they leave the sport—much less the headlines that go along with it—but true to form, Michael was the exception, not the rule. I could not be happier for his father Fred, his mother Debbie, his sisters Hilary and Whitney, his fiancé Nicole, and his son, Boomer. Like Sinatra, Michael did it his way, and he went out on top.
IN THE ZONE & ON THE GRIND
Over the seven days that followed that historic Monday night at the pool, we experienced many of the highs and lows that Rio had to offer. While the memories and moments are too many and too great to catalogue, here are a few that have been burned into my memory. They are Rio’s equivalent of that blue dot you see everywhere you look after staring at the sun for one second too long. These moments will forever be burned into my reflections of Rio:
Watching DLE client Casey Eichfeld race to a bronze medal in the Men’s Canoe Slalom, only to be relegated from third to seventh, after time penalties were subsequently assessed. As he crossed the line and saw his time, Casey screamed and waved his arms in victory and celebration. Ninety minutes later, I stood there as he sunk into his cousin’s arms and heaved with tears of what could have been.
Witnessing DLE client Dagmara Wozniak fight her way back from a disappointing semi-final loss against Russia to a dominant Bronze Medal victory over the Italians in the Women’s Team Sabre competition. Wozniak came out blazing, with 5-1, 5-2, 5-2 victories in her matches, anchoring the Americans to a hard fought medal. With her purple hair a symbol of encouragement for young girls to step up and stand out, rather than simply trying to blend in, Dagmara won far more than a bronze on her Road to Rio. She beat injuries, self-doubt, and an array of world-class adversaries along the way.
Watching DLE client Ashley Nee finally make her Olympic debut in the Women’s kayak. Not only is Ashley one of the few openly gay athletes on Team USA, she epitomized the fortitude embodied in these Olympic stories. In 2008, she seemed primed to make the Olympic Team, only to be forced out with injuries. Four years later, she earned the Olympic spot for Team USA in London, only to lose a subsequent tie-breaker to her teammate and missed out on London. In the four years between London and Rio, she left the sport and in the process found her wife, and in many ways arguably even found herself. “I felt the fire again,” she told me, “but this time it was fire, backed by purpose and perspective. Representing the United States is a privilege, not a right.” Truer words have never been spoken and as I stood with her in the stands, tears running down her face, Ashley represented all that we are as a nation: freedom, equality, opportunity.
The stories are endless and each has its own tone and tenor of adversity and achievement. There’s Howard Shu (DLE)—a first-generation American citizen, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. in order to provide a better life for their children—who traveled to 30 countries, across five continents, in 12 months, in order to qualify for the Games. There’s the Hurley Sisters, Kelley and Courtney, who became on of only a dozen siblings in Olympic history to compete in two consecutive Games and claim a medal. The Texas duo have already begun preparing for their fourth and third Games, respectively, in Tokyo 2020.
The stories are endless, but the Games eventually have a closing.
Yet for all that you get to experience—from your viewing perch at home—the one thing that nobody ever sees is all the work that gets put in on the other side of the proverbial curtain in order to get these stories out to the American people. This is the “all-grunt, no-glory” (or at least no credit) element of strategic public relations, which the DLE Agency has absolutely mastered over the last eight years. I’m quick to brag on our clients, but it’s rare that I stand front and center and praise our agency (or me, indirectly); this is an exception to that rule.
Why? Because the DLE Agency’s Strategic Public Relations plan was a veritable case study in media management and brand development. In the run-up to the Rio Olympics and during the Games themselves, our clients were featured across: ABC, BeIN, CBS, CCTV, CNN, ESPN, EWTN, FOX, FOX Business, FOX News, MSNBC, MTV, NBC, NBC Sports, and PBS, as well as print and digital publications including Allure Magazine, Buzzfeed, Charlotte Magazine, Charlotte Observer, Cosmopolitan, E! News, Interview Magazine, L.A. Times, Men’s Health, National Geographic, New York Times, USA Today, W. Magazine, Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post…just to name a few.
As I’ve said while writing from past Olympic Games, while only one person can stand atop the medal stand, it takes a committed team of supporters to get them there. From family, to coaches, to agents, to doctors, to therapists, to nutritionists, to sponsors, and even the American people themselves. You see the one thing that can never be lost when it comes to the Olympic Games is that when you pull on that uniform, your logo is our flag, your fight song is our national anthem, and your fan base is made up of 300 million flag-waving, chest-pounding, red-blooded Americans.
There is no greater honor, no greater privilege, and no greater platform than to represent your country at the Olympic Games.
So here’s to all the athletes, the families, the fans, and the Brazilian people, who played gracious hosts to the biggest sporting event in the world. Records were broken, medals were won, and history was made…on the Road to Rio.