ollan-cassell-at-the-rio-olympics
Ollan Cassell signing the 1964 Tokyo Olympics poster in Rio; from the collection of Ollan Cassell

The doomsayers had their say – the Rio Olympics, under the crushing weight of the poor economy, scandals, environmental and health scares, worries of security, would fail.

Ollan Cassell has seen it all. As a member of the 4X400 US men’s track relay team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, as well as in his role as the executive director of the Amateur Athletic Union, the American governing body for 17 sports in his time, Cassell has been to every Olympics since 1964, excepting the Athens Olympics in 2004.

So when he arrived in Rio, he read all the stories about the problems. He certainly noticed the empty stands. And he put up with the traffic snarls that paralyzed the city during the Games. But Cassell knew that once the Games started, the problems would fade to the background.

The org committee was broke, the country is in a mess. They threw their president out. They didn’t have the finances to get things done. But like all the other Olympics, for the athletes with medals on the line, they‘re ready to compete. Regardless of what the situation is, once the Olympics roll around the athletes are ready. The athletes are focused on competing and wining regardless of what’s going on. When the lights go on, and the gun goes off, the press writes about how great the games are.

And what was the most amazing event Cassell witnessed? “The most spectacular event I saw in Brazil was that 400 meter world record (set by Wayde van Niekerk). I couldn’t imagine anyone could go 43.3 seconds. It’s like going 21.5 for two 200s!”

There were of course fears of security. Cassell was in Mexico City when hundreds were killed as government troops thwarted an anti-government protest prior to the start of the 1968 Olympics. Cassell was in Munich when Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli Olympians and coaches in 1972. But Cassell felt safe in Rio de Janeiro. Accompanied by his daughter, Cassell played tourist and was comforted by the presence of security.

 

ollan-cassell-at-the-holy-redeemer
Ollan Cassell at Christ the Redeemer; from the collection of Ollan Cassell

 

As was true with the world cup in Brazil, there were about 75000 to 80000 soldiers. I felt safe. No one in my group had been robbed or held up. The military was patrolling all the time. When you went out into the streets, sightseeing, you would see the military trucks with open beds and machines guns driving through the area. It was like an armed camp, but you felt safe. They had barriers in the sightseeing areas, big steel barriers the kind police use when they want to direct car and foot traffic into certain area. They were imposing. But that’s been true at all the Games. In London, they had barriers to make sure you went where they wanted you to go.

As for the environmental or health issues, to Cassell, it wasn’t an issue. “I didn’t hear of anyone getting sick because of the water. And I saw only one mosquito, which my granddaughter killed.”

But perhaps, one of the most satisfying parts of an Olympian’s life is to re-connect with the Olympian fraternity.

It’s a special feeling – being an Olympian. There are so few of us compared to the population of the world. In Olympic Villages there are about 10,000 Olympians, which is a select group. In the United States, there are about 5,000 living Olympians, with quite a few in their 90s. So it’s wonderful to see old friends and Olympians at these events.

To read about Ollan Cassell and the history of international sports from the 1960s to the 1990s, read his absorbing book, Inside the Five Ring Circus: Changing Global Sports and the Modern Olympics.

ollan-cassell-at-the-rio-olympics_stadium

Advertisements
Ans Botha, coach for South African sprinter Wayde van Niekerk, talks to reporters during media availability at the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro.
Ans Botha, coach for South African sprinter Wayde van Niekerk, talks to reporters during media availability at the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro, Aug. 15, 2016. Niekerk won the gold medal in the 400-meter final with a world record of 43.03 (Jeffrey Furticella/The New York Times)

In the world of leadership development, finding the right executive coach is often a matter of chemistry. We often introduce a coachee to two, sometimes three prospective coaches with the hope that one of them will click with the client. So much of a good coaching engagement is the willingness of the coachee to be vulnerable, to allow him or herself to open up and trust the coach. The greater the openness and trust, the greater the commitment of the coachee to change.

The same is likely true in the world of high-performance sports. Not every coach is right for every athlete. While Bobby Valentine‘s cerebral, in-your-face managerial style was perfect for the World Series bound 2000 New Mets, it was awful for the 2012 Boston Red Sox. While Soichi Sakamoto‘s my-way-or-the-highway approach to coaching championship swimmers was perfect for two-time gold medal-winning freestyle swimmer, Bill Smith, in the 1930s and 1940s, it was anathema to fellow Hawaiian swim star Halo Hirose.

When Wayde Van Niekerk of South Africa blew away Michael Johnson’s 19-year-old world record time in the 400-meter sprint at the 2016 Rio Olympics, almost everyone was surprised to learn that his coach was a 74-year-old woman whose white-haired, grandmotherly appearance fooled security at the Olympic Stadium. They would not let the woman see her prodigy, Van Niekerk. After being reassured profusely by fellow South Afrikaner athletes that Anna Sofia Botha was indeed the coach of Rio’s newest star, the coach finally got to see her coachee.

As she explained in this New York Times article, “we just hugged each other. It wasn’t necessary to say anything. We knew in our hearts and in our minds what we thought and what we had achieved.”

van-niekerk-world-record

Van Niekerk met Botha in 2012, when he enrolled at the University of the Free State, where Botha was the track coach. Even though she seemed to appear out of nowhere, Botha has actually been coaching track for nearly half a century, after competing in track herself. So when she saw this raw talent come to her, and saw a sprinter prone to leg injuries, she recommended that van Niekerk switch from the 200 meters, to the 400 meters, under the assumption that the longer distance would place less stress on his hamstrings.

“I have such a big responsibility to get this athlete to develop to his full potential, and also the responsibility for myself to try to do my very best not to do something wrong which can make or break him,” Botha told the Sunday Times (cited in this Deadspin article.) “The main thing is we listened to what his body said to us. If the body said stop, we stopped, or went a little softer.”

“She’s an amazing woman,” van Niekerk said in this article in The Guardian. “She has played a huge role in who I am today and kept me very disciplined and very focused on the role and who I need to be.” Clearly Niekerk needed someone who could bring the tough love, and Botha confirmed that in the same article.

“I dearly love all my athletes but it’s about being strict … We can laugh, but when we have to work hard, we work hard.”

World-class athletes who self-coach, like javelin champion Julius Yego, are few and far between. The coach can sometimes have a huge impact. Who is the right coach? Well, if you’re serious, you probably should not settle for the first one to come along. The coach right for you is out there. You’ll know it when you meet her.