Olympics and Startups
Josh Elman

As a former NBC Olympics journalist who went to business school to work with startups, I really enjoyed the attempt to highlight the commonalities among those striving for greatness in these two seemingly unrelated endeavors.

Indeed, both the Olympian and the entrepreneur assume massive opportunity costs — both personal and professional — to toil in obscurity over an interminable time horizon for an uncertain payoff. There is nobility in such a journey, which is why I agree it warrants celebration in both realms.

However, I take exception to the assertion that, “The difference from the Olympics and the startup world though, is there isn’t always a medal at the end in startups.”

In Rio, 2,102 medals were awarded among 11,303 athletes. Far from “always” having a medal waiting for you, less than one in five athletes gets to grace the podium (the percentage is even smaller when factoring in multiple medalists), making the success rate much more akin to that of startups.

Worse yet, unlike startups, the upside case for Olympians is far more modest. Even for the most high-profile gold medalists, fame is often fleeting, while fortune is often elusive (Bryan Clay’s story is an archetype). And Olympians don’t benefit from the ill-advised actions of irrational parties; although Providence occasionally delivers a Steven Bradbury, there is no cash-rich corporate development team standing at the finish line doling out a medal to every athlete that shows up looking good in a uniform.

Given all this, it’s no wonder my old boss at NBC generally forbade us from using the phrase “settled for silver” — even for the most heavily favored athletes (yes, we were granted an exception for McKayla Maroney). It’s an Olympic medal! It’s incredibly hard just to get to the Games, damn near impossible to reach the podium, and even then your life isn’t exactly made. So, yes, in both cases, let’s celebrate the journey, but let’s also give the Olympians the immense credit they deserve.

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