As the Olympic Games approach, I have been thinking about how we play to win. Across the globe, from 205 nations, athletes will be gathering in one venue, under one flame, to play games. These games define a nation’s pride (or humility), an individual event can inspire the entire world to devote its attention (such as the marathon), and how a single athlete performs most often shapes the way that person lives the rest of their life: victorious, lucky, skilled, vanquished, loser. It is a remarkable event. But the success or failure of the Games, a nation’s investment in their team, the devotion of family and friends to a single athlete’s dream, hinges on something that is rarely, if ever, discussed—the unconditional trust that is placed in the rules by which everyone plays to win.
Without rules, without the legislative mechanisms to create and agree upon the rules, without the officials, devices, and testing required to enforce the rules, and without sanctions being imposed against those who violate the rules, the Olympic Games would simply not be possible. The Games represent a fundamental, nearly global, consensus to trust one another to play by the rules and thereby realize the awesome emotions of triumph and effort that rivet much of us to the daily drama of the Games.
But there is something else. Rules exist as a means of controlling those who are driven to win not by the valor and discipline required to truly achieve speed, strength, and accuracy, but by other drivers: greed, selfishness, the fear of failure, the potential stain of dishonor, the economic golden apples that nations and sponsors offer to their victors. If no one ever violated the rules, or got caught trying, the Olympic Games, like any sport, would be a very different experience.
When we think of rules and playing games, I recall our childhood games: kick the can, hide-and-go-seek, marbles, and the like. Every neighborhood had its own rules. For those of us who moved during our childhood, like myself, one of the strains of the move was to meet new kids, find out what games were played in the neighborhood . . . and learn the rules. But everywhere, we played for the joy of play, but the most likely outcome if someone did not play by the rules was a shouting match and, more often than not, a pouting cheater thrown out of the game (at least for 10 minutes). Consensus ruled, trial was swift, and the punishment was uniform in nearly any neighborhood—exclusion.
For today’s global games, the essence of neighborhood play remains: if the rules are violated, there must be sanctions imposed, for which exclusion remains the most useful remedy to threaten. But the rules today are far more complex, driven by the fundamental, shared ambition to set into place a set of rules that enable all of the stakeholders, nations, athletes, coaches, and parents to trust their participation will be rewarded by the joy of play—and not the frustration of being a victim of cheating. The rules are more complex because, time and again, cheating has been exposed which is determined to be wrong. Usually the simple rules become complex because a) someone wins, b) the victor has done something that allowed them to win, and c) the consensus is reached that activity or action should be disallowed as a means to achieve winning. In the words of my neighborhood when I was growing up, “t’aint fair”.
Today’s local paper featured a darkly negative, and disturbing, story about the use of drugs in sport. Driven by the greed, selfishness, fear of failure, stain of dishonor, or economic gain, athletes and their surrounding coaches, trainers, nutritionists, and doctors collaborate to infuse the athlete with artificial stimulants, drugs, doping and transfusions. Nearly everywhere, there is a consensus that drugs and doping “t’aint fair”. Rules have been developed to stop the behavior. Testing mechanisms have been devised. Enforcement controls are funded and operated at all levels of sport that can afford it. But despite these institutional constraints to play by the rules, the story reports that athletes still cheat . . . and get caught. Rather than begin the build-up celebrating the amazing accomplishments of the thousands of athletes that will attend the Games, and the valiant efforts of tens of thousands who competed fairly to try and achieve success, the story focuses on the cheats, on those who don’t play by the rules—these are the persons that place the Games in jeopardy for one simple reason: they threaten the trust we all place in the Games that the winners will, indeed, play by the rules.
For the next few weeks, I am going to be writing about the Games, the rules . . . and trust. I believe we can learn a lot from the Games—our success as a global community in assembling together, and a study of how we succeed—and fail—in doing so, will enable us to draw insights about how we trust—and fail to trust—in commerce, in business, and in the digital world in which we live.