2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #16: The Secret Ceremonies of the Olympic Games

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Perhaps some of the greatest moments of the games are held behind closed doors and reserved for a select few to witness. These “secret ceremonies” have evolved because Olympic officials are following the golden rule of business: “know thy customer.” If the Olympics are big business (they are, NBC paid $4.4 billion for the next 4 games including Sochi) then it is essential to know just who the “customer” is. As it turns out there are 4 segments of declining size, but increasing impact in Olympic sport: 1) fans – the largest, 2) competitors, 3) coaches, family and support, 4) medal winners. These secret ceremonies have come to be in order to better serve segments 3) and 4). In order to fully understand why and how we must first debunk some conventional wisdom about the medals ceremony.

There’s a traditional notion of the ultimate moment at the Olympics – the athlete finishes the race or competition and chest heaving, brilliantly lit white breath coming from their lips they march down the red carpet and bend their neck to receive the weight of Olympic metal.

The montages we see on TV and read about from the carefully reconstructed narratives in the media suggest that in this singular moment, all the hopes and dreams and fears and joys come to fruition in one scintillating moment of pride and joy. The victor raises his or her arms and the journey is complete.

The reality is that this is narrative fallacy. The first reason it is a false is because it is nearly impossible for an athlete who has had tunnel vision and a relentless focus on an end goal to come to grips with the sheer impact of the moment and the years, even decades of training and sacrifice it took to get there in just a few minutes after the race. The second reason it is a false construct is because there has been innovation in an unexpected place for this important medalist segment – how to give Olympic medals and create an experience – and the simple reality is they no longer receive their medals the same day as their performance. This is for good reason. As a medalist myself, it is common for me to be asked “what was it like to stand on the podium at the olympics” and for a long time I kept the false narrative alive, “it was amazing to finally reach my goal. I was so grateful etc. etc.” Then I finally assented to the truth.  Here’s the painfully honest answer, “Actually I wasn’t really present. My mind was so stuck in the future that it immediately wandered, ‘should I keep skating? I’m 25 yrs old and have no income, but… I didn’t achieve my goal.’ ‘I wonder if I’ll get drug tested – I hope not, I don’t have to pee…” I wasn’t present at all and mostly missed the moment. In talking with other athletes, – particularly first timers, this appears to be more the rule than the exception.

Enter customer experience innovation for segment four – the medalists. The medals ceremony is no longer done this way. Yes, the athletes march down the red carpet, chests still heaving from the effort but now it is the “flowers ceremony” where they receive… flowers. The medals, as it turns out, must wait – usually almost exactly 24 hours.

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Charlie and Meryl Davis Flowers Ceremony

At the winter Olympics, athletes no longer receive their medals at the venue immediately after their event – Instead, the athletes are given 24 hours to ponder, to let it all sink in, to hear from friends and family, schoolmates and coaches from around the world before they step on stage to stand on the podium. Instead of an echoing half-filled arena, there are now tens of thousands of fans in a central location. It is like a rock concert. It IS a rock concert – immediately on the heels of the awards presentation big name bands begin to play and the party goes on until the wee hours. (pic – the real medals ceremony) Not for the medalists though, for athletes of most countries they still have another ceremony. Holland and USA in particular have created experiences to help segments 3 and 4 (medalists AND family/coaches/support) to breakthrough the tunnel vision that led them to this outcome and help bring perspective on the scale of their accomplishments.

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Actual Medals Ceremony – Olympic Park

Hans Erik Tuijt is the Global Activation Director for Heineken and has been instrumental in evolving the post competition awards process for the Dutch athletes. For their (many) Dutch medalists, they have designed and created an experience for the medalists, their families and fans that is truly magical. A few hours or up to a day after the event, Dutch medal winners and their families arrive to the Holland Heinken House – a dwelling constructed just for this event – where they have a private room to relax, have some food or something to drink, talk, watch the games and decompress. (pic Holland house exterior, family area).

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Holland Heineken House

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Hans Erik shows me the athlete room

Somewhere around 10pm, the magic begins. Out in the main space, hundreds of Dutch fans have assembled in their brilliant royal orange clothes and after listening to a live band for a few hours, the lights change and go dark, the music changes, and the energy begins to build. Inside, a man on a milling machine works furiously to complete a metal plaque with the winner’s name and achievement.  (pic band playing, man w/ milling machine)

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“We designed it for impact – for the athletes, for their families, for their fans.” With piece of music designed specifically for the moment, a deep beat begins and an escalating instrumental and electronic theme emerges. A popular TV host appears and as each wave of sound and drums and bass rolls over the crowd the host uses the music and energy to whip the crowd into a manic frenzy. Then, just at the crescendo, the moment comes as designed: with a brilliant flash of light, a door at the end of the hall opens and – arms raised – in comes the hero, the medalist. Simultaneously a hidden host of workers in the house forms a human chain and linking together pulls the crowd back allowing a lane to emerge, the “legendary lane,” filled with plaques celebrating each of the previous medalists. In time with a change of music the athlete walks through the parted “orange sea” and on up to the stage in a cataclysmic release of energy and pure emotion from the fans and the family members who have a seat at the front of the stage. (pic – the moment of impact) There the athlete, often in a fit of emotion shares a brief story of their journey and finds words sometimes in tears to thank those that helped them arrive in this moment.  Last night Holland swept the mens 10,000meters and so bronze, then silver, then gold made their grand entrances.  Here’s the theme music: http://www.tribecompany.com/

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A parallel, quieter yet perhaps even more emotional ceremony takes place each night at the USA house. No media, no throngs of fans, only Olympic athletes – current and past, coaches and close family are allowed in the hallowed cloisters of the USA house to witness the presentation of the “Order of Ikkos.” (pic – Ikkos medals)

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ImageOrder of Ikkos Medals

The athletes arrive late, flushed from all the excitement, medals still around their necks. But their miens are serious. In the past 24 hours they have been given the chance to let their success sink in. They have also been granted that same amount of time to think about all the people that helped them get there – all the sacrifices of others in order for them to have this moment. This elegant transposition takes the form of granting a medal themselves, the “Order of Ikkos” award to the one person that helped them the most. The thundering drumbeat of pride is set against the shattering humility of gratitude creating an emotional crescendo like no other. As they begin to speak, the gravity of the moment hangs thick in the air. Voices husky with emotion the halting inadequate words come and inevitably bring a waterfall of tears – from the athlete, the Ikos recipient, and every eye in the house. This is perhaps the most hallowed moment in all of sport.

Mikaela Shiffrin Gives the IkkosOutside the party goes on, new competitions are held and the customer experiences for fans, athletes, families, and medalists are complete.

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