One for all, and all for gold

Romania’s women’s epee team won the gold medal at the Rio Olympics after they were eliminated from the individual tournament. Paradoxically, they failed as one, but won first place as a team. How is that possible? Science seems to have an answer for this.

Photo by Eugene Lim on Unsplash

The first women’s epee tournament was inaugurated in 1996, in Atlanta. Since then, the only three countries that ever won the gold were Russia, China and France. Of all three of them, China has been the star of the past several years, including the last Olympic games so, in a way, it was only natural for everyone to bet on them this year in Rio. China had the opportunity, and the pressure, to become the second country to win back-to-back gold medals, after Russia did it at the Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 Olympic Games.
As you can see, Romania wasn’t perceived as a challenger in this competition. Which probably, was for the best.

The Fall

Loredana Dinu, Simona Gherman, Simona Pop, Ana Maria Popescu, the Romanian quartet that made history, both as individuals and as a team. They are all high achievers and dedicated most of their teenage and adult life to sports. Ana Maria Popescu, in particular, has exceptional results, three times champion at the World Cup series. With the Romanian team, she was twice World champion and six-times European champion. With such a great record, everyone had high hopes for the Romanian team when they participated at the Olympic Games in London in 2012.
Unfortunately, they left the competition on the 6th position. No one would have thought they would not make it to the podium. As they would later admit in interviews, they lost faith and confidence in their own strength just before the games started. The pressure they felt from the media and the supporters was just too much to bear.
Depressed and feeling beaten, they came back home with the feeling that they would retire. Everyone kept their promise, except Ana Maria, who continued training. Even their long-time coach, Dan Podeanu, retired. The other girls went home to spend more time with their family and kids, but kept coming back to the gym to oversee the training sessions.
Shortly before the 2016 Olympics competition, Ana Maria reunited the team, with a new member, Simona Pop, and they all started training again as a team. More mature, more confident in their own strength, and with considerably less pressure from the outside, the girls were looking forward to the Rio events.

The Glorious Comeback

The Rio tournaments debuted with the individual games, where none of the girls were able to reach the podium.
However, when the team tournaments started a couple of days later, something magical happened. It was like a fire ignited in each one of them. Was it their ambition to outperform themselves? Was it what Alexandre Dumas kept repeating in his musketeers books, one for all and all for one, the team spirit? Or maybe they simply found the way to focus on the result and not on what others were saying. Whatever it was, it worked.
Before China, they fought hard against the United States in quarterfinals and won by the golden hit. That means that when the final score is equal, the first hit will win. And they did. Next, they defeated the highly-ranked Russian team.
In the finals, China’s team was fabulous. They had strength, technique and an eye for the gold. But the Romanian team was fierce. They fought each game as if it were their last. From the nine assaults, Romanians won 6, Chinese only 2 and there was an equal. In the last duel, Ana Maria Popescu, the Olympic silver medalist from 2008, finished off with a magnificent leap and stab on Xu Anqi in one of the last assaults bringing the final score to 44-38.
The Romanians won their country’s first-ever team epee Olympic gold medal. And this time, they took everyone including the press by surprise.

Science Says High Expectations Can Sometimes Lead To Poor Performance

In education, there is something called the Golem effect. It is a psychological phenomenon in which high expectations placed upon students lead to higher performance. It’s something specialists would call a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. But in sports, and sometimes in organizations, high expectations can have a completely different effect.
When supporters see the media or other supporters expecting their team to win, it gives them hope and it makes them believe even more in their team’s success. Supporters love this because it makes them anxiously await the match and they are even happier when their team actually wins. However, there is a flip side to the coin in the way the players experience this intense level of support. At some point, they start to fear the potential of disappointing their fans and that wears them out. Some might not even perform well in such conditions.
But when they release themselves from such pressure and manage to focus on the result, nothing can stop them anymore. If we look at the Romanian women’s team performance, this could be the explanation. However, this is mere speculation and I don’t have the experience, nor the scientific background to pass such judgments. One thing is crystal clear: they won because they wanted to win and they didn’t make any step back, only forward. And you could see that in each one of them. As a team and as individuals, they are an example for anyone both in sports and business for not giving up on their dream.

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