Australian speed skater Steven Bradbury isn't your classic Olympic hero. He is the first Australian ever to win a gold medal at the winter Olympics, but he freely admits he isn't the best short track speed skater in the world, or the second best, and probably not even the third.
But even if he isn't the fastest, he probably is the smartest — or at least he was on a fateful day last February. That's because he incorporated an old, almost forgotten concept into his race strategy: caution.
Bradbury was well back in fifth — and last — position going into the final turn before the finish line of the 1,000-meter (1,094-yd.) short track speed skating event.
Then the second-place Chinese skater tried to pass and bumped into the lead skater, American Apolo Anton Ohno. Both skaters fell, tripping up the Korean and Canadian skaters who were right behind. All four slid off the track at high speed, leaving Bradbury an open path to the finish line.
Bradbury wasn't immediately declared the victor, but after a short deliberation, the judges decided he won the gold medal and the minor medals belonged to the American and Canadian skaters who crawled over the finish line behind him.
Purists were outraged by the judge's decision, and thought there should have been a re-race to determine the “real” winner.
Not me. I thought it was one of the finest hours in sports. A wonderful statement, in an age where second gold medals are handed out to those who whine loud enough, that a few still believe in the old adage “no second chances.” Not in sports. Not in life.
My opinion solidified when I learned that Bradbury was indeed deliberately hanging back and waiting for his opponents to make a mistake. Acknowledging he wasn't the fastest skater, he said he was shooting for a bronze medal and just trying to stay out of trouble at the back because there already had been so many crashes in previous competitions.
Just a story to save face? I doubt it. This was Bradbury's fourth Olympics. Eight years ago he was injured in a last-lap crash similar to this one. He was stabbed by a skate and needed 111 stitches and a gallon of blood.
Six years later he fell and broke his neck when he slid headfirst into a barrier.
Bradbury isn't some stiff who got lucky; he's a seasoned veteran who knows the value of caution. He expected someone to fall in the last race; it just worked out better than he planned: Everyone but him fell down and he won gold instead of bronze.
Whatever happened to that kind of thinking? Planning for the worst, hoping for the best?
Some time after the New Economy was born, when all the rules supposedly changed, consequences became something only weaklings and losers worried about. Anyone who suggested being cautious about a new business strategy was branded an old, slow-witted dinosaur who was just getting in the way. Change, it was ruled, couldn't happen too fast.
Two years ago, virtually every profile of formerCEO Jacques Nasser called him a “change agent” and asked the question: “Is he moving too fast?” Too often the answer was “No, Jacques isn't moving too fast, everyone else is moving too slow.”
I don't remember reading anywhere: “Hey, maybe this guy should slow down. If he blows it, he could wreck's reputation, its market share could drop to its lowest point in 19 years and thousands of loyal employees could lose their jobs. Maybe moving at ‘Internet speed’ isn't worth the risk.” I never read that. Instead, moving too slowly was usually cited as the riskiest course Nasser could follow.
Now the worm has turned. Big, slowCorp. is skating well ahead of domestic rivals Ford and once-speedy DaimlerChrysler Corp., thanks in no small part to the cautious (critics once called it plodding) leadership of CEO Rick Wagoner.
And in mid-March, old-fashioned, Old Economy, manufacturing companies and the Dow Jones Industrial Average were making tech companies and the Nasdaq composite index look lame.
Running at the front of the pack is overrated, a lot of seasoned executives will tell you. Hanging back and waiting for the hot shots to screw up, so you can be the last man standing, now there's a strategy.
Listen to Drew Winter and other Ward's editors Thursday on WJR 760 AM radio in Detroit. firstname.lastname@example.org