What Happens When the Olympic Dream Has Faded

Ex-Olympians take their competitive instincts out of the gym, and into MBA classrooms

With Olympic champions already starting to be crowned, it’s easy to forget that Olympic success can only last for so long. Retired athletes might feel like they’ve lost their elite identity, feel financially unprepared, or struggle to find a replacement for the adrenaline rush that top-level competition gives them. The antidote? For some, it seems to be an MBA.

In 2011, George Washington University School of Business launched its STAR (Special Talent, Access and Responsibility) Executive MBA, targeted specifically at athletes and sports stars who decide that the business world is a natural next step from elite sport. This wasn’t the beginning of a phenomenon – rather, it tapped the growing trend of sports stars taking MBAs. It seems that a competitive instinct can prove just as fruitful in business as in sport, and when a sporting career inevitably comes to an end at an early stage in a person’s life, it is no wonder that ex-Olympians approach an MBA as a useful long term career investment.

Shaquille O’Neal, four times NBA champion and gold medallist at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, was an early adopter, earning his MBA online in 2005 through the University of Phoenix, having already honoured his promise to his mother that he would complete his bachelor’s degree in 2000. On his MBA, Shaq said ‘Sports for me has always been, you know, fairy tale life. And this right here is real life’.

The practicality of an MBA compared to the gamble of pursuing a sporting career is clearly key to its appeal: after completing his MBA, Shaq acknowledged that ‘Someday I might have to put down a basketball and have a regular 9-to-5 like everybody else’. His nickname, ‘Dr. Shaq’, is testament to this determination to pursue further education despite his continued commitment to basketball. Shaq has now earned his doctorate, and has plans to attend law-school.

Keeth Smart, the first American man to be ranked number one in fencing, and a silver medallist for the United States at the 2008 Beijing Games, he studied for his MBA at the Columbia Business School in New York after retiring from the sport. He is now Vice President at the Bank of America.

The Winklevoss twins, perhaps better known for suing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg than for reaching the finals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, took their MBAs at Oxford’s Saïd Business School in 2009 – but they were still able to row at a high level, earning an Oxford Blue in the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race alongside their studies. Indeed, sport clubs at business schools can offer a relatively high level of competition, without be quite as all-consuming as the professional equivalent.

Female Olympians with MBAs include Katura Horton-Perinchief, for whom an MBA appealed after having to retire from diving due to injuries following her appearance in the 2004 Athens games. The first female Bermudian and first black woman to compete in Olympic diving, Katura enrolled on the STAR EMBA programme in 2012.

Also on the STAR programme is American artistic gymnast Dominique Dawes, who competed in the 1992, 1996, and 2000 Olympics, winning medals at each outing and a team gold in 1996 in Atlanta. Her great success, becoming the only African-American gymnast to win an individual medal, and the only American gymnast to win team medals in three Olympic Games, meant that Dominique approached her business education with the same desire to excel.

But that’s not to say that an MBA has to start after sport has fallen by the wayside. Catherine Arlove, who twice competed for Australia in Olympic judo, didn’t even wait until retirement to study for an MBA – she took a part time course at Melbourne Business School whilst still competing internationally, planning early for a future outside of sport.

Gavin Meadows, a British swimmer who competed in freestyle events at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games has embarked on an executive MBA course at Cass, having worked at Johnson & Johnson after the end of his swimming career in 2005. Talking to the Independent, Gavin said, "As an athlete you try to give yourself optimum conditions to perform. The MBA classroom is an engine room for developing the skill set that you need in business to perform your best. My good fortune is that I have already had one successful career, where I achieved a number of lifetime goals by the age of 27."

"I know that balancing the executive MBA with my job will be trying, but I made the Olympics at my third attempt, so I understand what sacrifice means and I know that the gap between success and failure can be marginal. Small steps take you where you want to go, and I think the MBA is going to be well worth all of the effort that's involved."

Education is training for the mind, and as these Olympians are well used to the determination needed to train the body to its fullest potential, an MBA can suit a competitive temperament. Perhaps some of those standing on the podium in London will not only be great athletes today, but the business leaders of tomorrow.

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