Arriving in London for the 2012 London Olympics was drastically different from my arrival in Beijing four years ago. For me, Beijing was filled with a flurry of photographers, excitement, new surroundings and the nerves of competing in my first Olympic Games. Walking out the doors of the Peking airport in Beijing was like being in a lightning storm from all the flash photography, The Americans had arrived! Touching down in London there wasn't a glimmer of any of the former excitement I'd seen in Beijing. I arrived this time not as a competitor, but as a spectator. I had no idea how the difference in experiences would play out, but I definitely looked forward to seeing the other side of the coin.
From an athlete's perspective, the Olympic Games has always been viewed as the pinnacle of sporting success, an event we long to compete in, and a dream we often devote our lives to realizing. It wasn't until returning from Beijing in 2008, after winning two gold medals in swimming, that I realized many people view the Olympics as a much bigger deal than just a sporting event. People thanked me for how I represented our country, were proud of me for what I'd accomplished, and were so happy to have us represent the hopes and dreams of millions of Americans back home. I was humbled and blown away by the loving sentiments and support people showed me everywhere I went.
As an athlete during the Games you are very focused. Your whole life is pretty much spent at the competition venue, or in the Olympic village. Surrounded by support staff, good food, coaches, other athletes working to accomplish their Olympic dreams, and the incredible emotions that are tied to the Olympic movement, you are very preoccupied with what's going on directly at hand. In Beijing, there wasn't much news from outside the Village, which was our home for three weeks. We had no idea how people on the outside were feeling or what they were seeing, talking about and excited about. What we felt was the energy within the competition venues, in the Village, from phone calls to family, and amongst teammates. There was really no way to get the 'water cooler talk' from back home, images of what our friends and family were seeing covered on NBC, or what was being depicted in the papers.
So far, the difference of experience from competing in Beijing for gold, to spectating in London, is quite drastic. Everywhere I go in the city people are chatting and gossiping about the events. Surrounding the Olympic Park is a vibrant sense of excitement, and a peacefulness, and purity in people coming together that seems to be sadly lacking in the world today. Every morning I get up and read several papers in the hotel that are filled, front to back, with Olympic stories and pictures that make their way from print to our conversations, thoughts, smiles, and cheers. From the spectator's point of view, the Olympics is like a big party, filled with awesome sports, enormous patriotism, inspiring and positive daily news, a seemingly never-ending sense of camaraderie between fellow country folk, and a sense of the rich history of the Games that dates back generations. All wonderful things you'd probably expect at an Olympic Games.
What I really didn't expect is the magnitude of the corporate aspect at the Olympics. As athletes, we focus on what we can do to give ourselves a greater opportunity to be successful. Inevitably, when competing, we are in our own little world based around the team, the competition, and achieving elite athletic success. While most of us do understand the fact that everything costs money, our team travel is generally covered by our governing body, and/or the U.S. Olympic Committee. Personally, I never really thought much about the bigger financial scheme of the Olympics and how much capital it actually takes to make something like this come together. That's where the corporate world comes in.
After narrowly missing the 2012 Olympic team I was able to land a sweet gig in London with Hilton Hotels, as well as do work with Visa, Cisco Systems and an Austin based tech company called DevFactory. There is actually quite a large group of Olympians doing work with me here including Apolo Ohno, Greg Louganis, Mary Lou Retton, Laura Wilkinson, Lenny Krayzleburg, Kerri Strug, Bryan Clay and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. A whole other economy happens at the Olympics and I had no idea it even existed before. Many of the business elite I've dealt with are from Silicon Valley, the hotel world and the banking industry. Never in my wildest dreams did I think there would be so many hospitality events, corporate parties, exclusive VIP dinners, fundraising meetings and opportunities to spend time with such influential people in business.
I've met so many dynamic personalities at these appearances who've given me great insight into the business world and life after athletics: the keys to being successful in sports are almost the exact same as in business, most people who tell you something is too hard are the ones who have never created something successful of their own. Attaining a high level of success in business takes time, you need to build relationships with people who can help you get to where you want to go, and that just like athletics, you must believe in what you're doing. However, the big difference I'm learning between business and athletics is that in business, everyday is a competition. In return for all this business knowledge I'm attaining, all I have to do is give some unique insight into the Olympics and about being an elite athlete, take some pictures, and sign autographs. It has been eye-opening how many business connections are made at the Olympics, and that even the super-successful executives and entrepreneurs are working the environment too. It seems like, in part, these events take place to give people new opportunities to do business, and help further their company's prowess. In essence, many of these people, their companies, and the capital they generate, help make the Olympics possible.
Official Olympic sponsors give big money to help put on the Olympic Games. In return they not only get exposure, recognition for being a part of the history and prestige of the Olympics, and associations with athletes, but also some sweet and special privileges including many intangibles. From my experience so far, the privileges range from access to exclusive tickets, Olympic accredited transportation (which gives you quicker access to the city and events), in some cases passes into the Olympic Village, the opportunity for private hospitality suites right outside the Olympic Park, and even spending time with the athletes. It's a far cry from what most Olympic spectators will ever get to experience, and I feel so fortunate for the opportunity.
The most refreshing thing I've noticed so far is that no matter who these people are, or at what level they are spending their time at the Olympic Games, everyone has been kind, jovial, loud in their cheers, and most importantly, respectful to all the competitors and fellow fans. The Olympic movement has always had an aspect of innocence to it that has brought diverse countries, and people, together to take part in a two-week spectacle that sometimes seems to make the world nearly stand still. As I go around to different competition venues, meet people from every corner of the globe, and take part in varying sorts of hospitality events, I'm constantly amazed that the Olympic spirit still prevails with such great poise and presence. My Olympic experience in 2012 has been very different from that of 2008, but the greatness of the Games is no less amazing, and I'm so honored to once again be a part of the Olympic experience.
You can read Garrett's personal blog by visiting AthleticFoodie.com.