By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS
“I like the idea and you’re probably one of the only coaches I know with the balls to do it. I applaud you for that, but I can’t let you do it.” – Dr. Harvey Schiller, Executive Director of the United States Olympic Committee
Watching the track cycling events at the Tokyo Olympics this week reminded me of a little-known story from my days as the National Coaching Director at USA Cycling, in which I pissed off some of the biggest governing bodies in cycling and learned valuable lessons about leadership, international politics, and the Olympic Movement.
It was the winter of 1995-1996, just months before the Olympic Games in Atlanta and the culmination of years of work with Project ‘96. As the National Coaching Director, one of the responsibilities that landed on my desk was signing off on requests from other nations to use USA Cycling and US Olympic Committee facilities for training purposes. That winter I was getting requests from the biggest cycling nations on the planet – Team USA’s primary competitors – for access to the 7-Eleven Velodrome in Colorado Springs… and I was just letting the requests sit in a pile on my desk.
The 7-Eleven Velodrome, sitting at about 6200 feet above sea level, was a competitive advantage, and it was ours. I was getting a lot of feedback from Team USA athletes who were upset that we were going to give our biggest competitors access to one of our best resources. It seemed counterintuitive. Here we were, working as hard as possible to prepare for the Olympics, developing new technologies and bike designs (like the GT Superbike below) and training techniques in Project ‘96. If we were working that hard to gain new competitive advantages, why would we give up an easy one we already had? So, I decided we weren’t going to give other nations access to the velodrome, and that set off a chain of events that landed me in Dr. Schiller’s office.
When coaches from other nations learned what I was doing, they were not shy about voicing their displeasure. Although I was a young coach at the time, I knew most of the head coaches from the major cycling nations from my not-so-distant days as an athlete. They knew exactly what I was up to, yet to their credit, they didn’t just yell at me and go over my head (although some did). Several of them took the time to counsel me on why my decision was unwise and out of step with the ideals of competition. We all want, they explained, the best competing against the best at the Olympics because it elevates the performance level of individual athletes and the entire sport. As an athlete, this resonated with me because even though a win is a win, true competitors want to know they beat you at your best.
I still didn’t sign off on opening up access to the velodrome.
Word got back to Mr. Hein Verbruggen, the dictatorial head of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the global governing body for the sport of cycling. During that era, Verbruggen ruled the UCI with kind of an iron fist. What Hein wanted, Hein got, and now I had earned his ire for disrupting the tradition of allowing international access to cycling training facilities. He called the CEO of USA Cycling and aggressively expressed both his anger and expectation that my decision would be overruled, immediately.
It was not.
My refusal to budge on opening the velodrome led to a phone call from Mr. Verbruggen to Dr. Schiller. Having had no luck at the NGB level, Verbruggen took his case to the head of the entire US Olympic Committee. Shortly thereafter, my assistant at US Cycling literally came running into the velodrome to tell me that Dr. Schiller wanted me in his office, now. One thing I’m proud of from the whole experience was that I told her to let his office know I’d be there after the day’s workout was over. I was a coach. The National Team athletes were on the track in the middle of a workout and putting the athletes first was a core principle for me. He could wait or come to the velodrome if he wanted.
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About two hours later I walked into Dr. Schiller office, and I was sweating. I had met Dr. Schiller a few times in passing but didn’t know him personally. He was massive, both in stature and reputation, a graduate of The Citadel who flew more than 1000 sorties for the US Air Force during the Vietnam War, earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, and retired as a Brigadier General.
Thus began one of my biggest lessons in leadership. Dr. Schiller didn’t rip into me or just give me an ultimatum with no explanation. He could have, and it was within his authority to override my decision without this meeting at all. Instead, he used the opportunity to show me the bigger picture so I could understand why my decision – while a good idea within my silo of putting the best prepared US cyclists on the start line in Atlanta – was bad for the sport of cycling and potentially disastrous for the Olympic Movement internationally.
We had a wide-ranging discussion, and “we go to the Olympics so we don’t go to war” was one of the things he said that stuck with me. He explained that one of the origins of the modern Olympic Movement was to bring nations together under the banner of athletic competition to humanize nations and direct national pride toward sport rather than conquest and conflict. How did that relate to me denying access to the velodrome? Well, because cooperation among nations for the use of training facilities around the globe was integral to the performance of individual athletes and teams across the entire spectrum of Olympic sports. And more important, the sharing of athletic facilities kept lines of dialogue open between nations when other avenues of communication were severely strained.
Dr. Schiller was right, as were the other national team coaches who had counseled me earlier. My decision to close the velodrome was a small move with the potential to start a cascade of unpleasant events. Australia, for instance, could decide their facilities were off limits to all United States teams. Other nations could follow suit, not just against US teams but against the teams of political adversaries. There was certainly a bit of hyperbole in imagining the possible consequences, but they made their point and I signed off on the requests to access the velodrome in the months leading up to Atlanta.
“Leaders need to think globally as well as granularly, and true leaders educate rather than dictate.”
The enduring lessons from that experience were that leaders need to think globally as well as granularly, and that true leaders educate rather than dictate. As a coach I was thinking about my small group of athletes, but as Coaching Director I also needed to think about how I was representing the governing body as well as the Olympic Committee. As a CEO for the past 21 years, I obviously have to do what is best for CTS, my coaches, and CTS Athletes, but I also have to consider what’s best for the coaching industry as a whole and even for coaches and athletes who don’t work with CTS.
From a leadership perspective, Dr. Schiller took the time to show me the bigger picture and lead me to the decision he’d already made. He could have yelled at me, belittled me, and leveraged the power of his office to just steamroll me. The conclusion would have been the same, but I wouldn’t have learned anything or grown as a leader myself. The other coaches who counseled me reinforced this lesson. They didn’t just call me an idiot; they took the time to make me a better coach–despite the fact we were coaching opposing teams.
Back in 1996 I was a young, ambitious coach trying to embody the principle of putting athletes first, and I tried to do that by responding to the ongoing requests of Team USA athletes on the issue of access to our facilities. I was wrong in that my perspective was too narrow. One of the first things you realize when you compete internationally is that we all sweat and struggle the same way; we all bleed the same when we fall. The Olympics exist to create a spirit of camaraderie and eliminate “them vs. us” thinking. And this then extends to fans worldwide through the mutual respect and admiration athletes display for each other, as we’ve seen in Tokyo when athletes from many nations cheered US gymnast Simone Biles when she returned to competition.
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