Last month, I went to see the World Championships in Athletics. Americans love football and basketball, but track and field and Olympic sports have a special place in my heart. At world championship level, these sports are a carnival of excitement, inspiration and wholesome national pride. Individual and team talent, ambition, hard work, focus, and (ultimately) no small part of the ego—the human qualities that create excellence—are on display.
Ever wondered why the free market works better than the alternative market? Look at sports like track and field for one answer. Athletes can specialize in sports that are right for them. That is wonderful. Ethiopia’s Tamira Totora won the men’s 26.2-mile marathon weighing 59 kilograms in his new record of 2:05:36. Worth noting: His first-place marathon medal gold in Tola weighs as much as the shot put gold won by Ryan Crouser. The weight of the big American he weighs 145 kg, equivalent to 2.5 times that of Tamirat his truss.
Athletics and Olympic sports inspire us because they demonstrate a wide range of body types and talents. High jumpers are tall and skinny, while sprinters are muscular and toned, with explosive bursts. A hurdler is a ballet player, he is flexible like a dancer. Swimmers have broad shoulders and long torsos. The height of a female gymnast she rarely exceeds one and a half meters. Downhill His skier, like a pole vaulter, is as cool as an astronaut, keeping calm in moments of deadly danger. Long distance runners, swimmers and cyclists are stoic.
Why does capitalism work? Instead of sports, turn to Adam Smith’s seminal books. national wealthSmith pointed out that society thrives when individuals are free to market their talents and trade their work for that of others. In this way, talented leather boot makers can pursue excellence in bootmaking without having to worry about the handiwork of a glazier making shop window glass. In a free market, 1 plus 1 is greater than 2.
Similarly today, nations thrive when people and businesses are free to pursue excellence of their choosing. Talented in math but shy, her teenage girl shouldn’t be judged for her human worth outside of her natural talents, such as kicking her boxing. Ethiopian marathoner Tora is mediocre as measured by his backstroke skills and discus throw distance.
The division of labor, the distribution of talents and abilities, is essential for societies to invent, grow and thrive. But no matter how true Adam Smith’s theory proves to be, politicians and corporate leaders jumble it up with a depressing regularity. their job is simple. Allocating capital, technology, and people to create profitable products, happy customers who want more, employees who are inspired and learning, and supportive communities. Capital is fungible. Technology is universal. So it is people who distinguish between success, mediocrity and failure. People will always be the differentiator.
Few people understood this better than the great Singaporean architect, Lee Kuan Yew. He saw Singapore as a conglomerate of talent from the neighborhood and around the world, free to pursue excellence under the rule of law, nurtured by education and unencumbered by corruption. Japan’s post-WWII miracles were driven by extraordinary business heroes who studied the world’s best practices (for example, Toyota’s Six adopted his Sigma quality standard). South Korea has developed into a world-class manufacturer of automobiles, electronics and pop music.
For companies and countries to thrive, they must become markets for talent. Perhaps they take inspiration from track and field and the Olympics.