Like hundreds of millions of other people around the world, I’ve been watching the Olympics on TV. Like most Americans among those viewers (especially NBC executives), I was pulling for swimmer Michael Phelps to win eight gold medals and surpass the record seven set by Mark Spitz in 1972.
As everyone not buried under a rock knows by now, Phelps succeeded in his quest, but only by the narrowest of margins and only with considerable help from his teammates.
Thus, Phelps finds himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week in the inevitable Spitz-poster knockoff-barechested and with all eight gold medals dangling neatly from his neck.
There were two close shaves along the way. Phelps handled one solo, winning the 100-meter butterfly by passing six competitors in the last 50 meters and outtouching Serbia’s Milorad Cavic at the wall by .01 seconds.
But the other was out of Phelps’, er, fins.
Early in the competition, Phelps was a member of the 4 x 100-meter men’s relay team. The United States got to the finals with its “B” team-a group that not only paved the way, but also set a world record in the process.
Then Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale and Jason Lezak joined the “B” team’s Cullen Jones for the final against the vaunted, previous-world-record-holding, trashtalking team from France. Before the Olympics began, French team member Alain Bernard had taunted the U.S. team, saying “The Americans? We’re going to smash them. That’s what we came for.”
After Weber-Gale, Phelps and Jones had swum their legs of the relay, Lezak dove in. At that point, the U.S. team was half a second behind the French, for whom Bernard was swimming the anchor leg.
At the turn, the United States was sixtenths of a second behind. For the last 45 meters, Lezak trailed Bernard. It was looking, as Yogi Berra would say, “like dÃ©jÃ vu all over again.” Indeed, three-time Olympian Lezak had come up short on the same anchor leg of the same relay in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics.
Lo and behold, Lezak surged in the last five meters, out-touched the trash-talking Frenchman by .08, and saved the day for himself, his relay team, Phelps’ pursuit of the record, and NBC’s ratings.
At poolside, Phelps let out a primal scream.
Ever since he surpassed Spitz’s record, it’s been interviews with Michael Phelps, profiles of Michael Phelps, stories about Michael’s mother, profiles on Michael’s coach, predictions of Michael’s financial windfall, features on Michael’s sponsorship potential-Michael, Michael, Michael.
I googled “Michael Phelps” last week. I got 11.4 million results. I googled “Jason Lezak.” Less than 5 percent of that amount. Yet who saved whose golden windfall?
As a teen-ager, I watched Mark Spitz swim every one of those 1972 Munich Olympics races-including the relays. Twenty-six years later, I can tell you all about Spitz, his seven medals, his degree from Indiana University and his transition from swimming to dentistry. I can tell you, too, about the terrorist attack on the Munich Olympic Village and the murder of Israeli athletes that soon overshadowed Spitz’s accomplishments.
But I can’t name a single one of his relay teammates.
Something tells me few people will know the name Jason Lezak 26 weeks, months or years from now.
In the sports world, we glorify individual stars and give short shrift to teams. Just about anyone can name Indianapolis Colts Quarterback Peyton Manning. Few can name the fellows who block for him. Many can name NASCAR’s Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart. Few can name their pit crews.
In the working world, the same holds true. When I teach reputation management, I cite research showing that 40 percent to 50 percent of an organization’s reputation depends on the reputation of the CEO. Knowing that, people in my profession work hard to put presidents, executive directors and other top leaders on pedestals.
There are risks, however.
In the movie “Galaxy Quest,” a parody on the Star Trek TV series, a Mr. Spocklike character, Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman), always plays second fiddle to the ship’s heroic leader, Commander Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen). In one scene, Dane saves a group of aliens from almostcertain suffocation. Their reaction: They credit the commander with their salvation.
Dane just rolls his eyes.
As long as it sells tickets, adds value to sponsorships and builds reputation for organizations, the star system is here to stay. But while the spotlight is, of necessity, on the Big Kahuna when the curtain’s up, the wise Worshipped One will generously share the huzzahs, hallelujahs and other rewards backstage.
Few successes occur solo. More often, they result from teaching, teamwork, coaching, mentoring, cheerleading, nurturing, genetics and more.
So if you’re lucky enough to win tomorrow; successful enough to earn a curtain call; star enough to find yourself on the podium once, twice or even eight times; never, ever forget the Jason Lezaks who got you there.
Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.