The Olympians of Wharton

This year, the privilege of hosting the Olympic Summer Games goes to London. Although the Olympics last just a fortnight, countless days go into their preparation, from the athletes who train nearly every waking hour to the professionals and volunteers who strive behind the scenes for months to make the contest possible and perfect. Throughout the years, a surprising number of the Wharton community have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of Olympic glory.

By Andrew Clark

Erinn Smart. Photo credit: Ryan Donnell.

Erinn Smart, a second-year MBA student, is deciding what she wants to do after graduation. The tech world is a good possibility, she says, given she is spending her summer in San Francisco at an internship with Google. Whatever Smart decides to focus on, it will be the second major profession to which she has dedicated her time. Before Wharton, the Brooklyn native competed as a fencer in two Olympics.

“All I did was train leading up to the Games,” recalls Smart, who earned a spot on the U.S. national team in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008 (and served as an alternate in Sydney in 2000). Training usually meant two-a-day workout sessions, every day, at least three hours apiece.

A former number-one ranked fencer, Smart retired after Beijing, where she won a silver medal in team foil. She still fences occasionally and teaches the sport to kids.

One might imagine training for an event as storied and prestigious as the Olympics to be overwhelming for an athlete. In Smart’s eyes, however, the Games really weren’t much different than the rest of her fencing career. After spending years traveling around the globe to compete, the Games had an air of familiarity.

“I had grown up surrounded by the people I was competing against,” says Smart, who has fenced since she was 12 when her father got her involved in the sport. “Basically, I was going up against all of my friends.”

Cliff Bayer, W’03, WG’03. Photo credit: Peter Murphy.

Smart isn’t the first Olympic fencer from the Wharton network. Cliff Bayer, W’03, WG’03, a fellow New York native, beat her to the lunge. In fact, Smart has known Bayer ever since her first riposte.

These days, Bayer is an executive director at UBS Investment Bank, but before he entered the financial sector, Bayer’s life was also defined by two-a-day workouts and international travel.

He recalls the difficulty of taking on the greatest talents across the world.

“It’s a very technical sport, which takes a lot of dedication and sacrifice,” he says. “Actually, the biggest challenge was breaking the mold of being an American fencer. For years the sport has been dominated by Europeans. However, that stigma has gradually changed.”

Bayer—who was a top-ranked fencer in the United States and recent appointee to the U.S. Fencing Hall of Fame, and who, according to Smart, set the bar for American male fencers on the international stage—competed in Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000. He retired when he was 22 and came to Wharton soon after. Now more than a decade removed from his last international competition, he regards his chance to compete in two different Olympics as an experience he will never forget.

“I’m incredibly patriotic, so it was amazing to have the chance to be part of the U.S. team,” Bayer says. “To walk out for those opening ceremonies and know it came from all these years of hard work, it’s definitely one of my best memories.”

Well Beyond Dabbling

Greg Boester, WG’98. Photo credit: Peter Murphy.

Wharton is also represented when it comes to competing in the Winter Games. In 1994 at Lillehammer, Norway, Greg Boester, WG’98, represented the United States as a ski jumper in the large-hill team event.

It’s not exactly a sport for the light-hearted. Competitors take off down a steep, snow-packed ramp and try to launch themselves as far as possible onto hills more than a hundred meters long, sloped at 30 degrees or greater. Distance counts, but points are also earned based on style.

Like Smart and Bayer, Boester says that preparing for the Games was a full-time, all-consuming pursuit, from multiple practice sessions to weight training.

“It’s challenging both intellectually and physically when you get to that level,” says Boester, whose team came in 11th at the games.

“You have to learn how to raise yourself to a new level. You are out there competing in front of 50 and 70 and 100,000 people. It’s important to learn how to focus on what you need to do,” he explains.

These days, Boester is a managing director at Barclay’s in Manhattan and lives in Rye, NY. The native of Colorado still skis with his three children. Jumping, however, is in his rearview mirror.

“Ski jumping isn’t exactly something you just want to dabble in,” he jokes.

— READ THE SIDE STORY: SCORING THE ECONOMICS OF THE OLYMPICS —

The Repeat Attenders

Kenneth Shropshire, Wharton’s David W. Hauck Professor, has more than three decades of memories related to the Olympics. While he was a lawyer in Los Angeles, he was hired to work on the organizing committee for the 1984 Summer Games as an executive, a role he held for three years.

For him, it was the thrill of a lifetime. As an athlete in high school and college—not to mention a native of L.A.—two of Shropshire’s biggest loves had come together in the grandest of fashions.

“When the Olympics came to Los Angeles, there was a lot of excitement, especially after seeing the impact the games had on Mexico City in 1968,” says Shropshire, the faculty director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative.

Following the success of the games in his hometown, Shropshire was bit by the Olympics bug. He has served since in a number of roles related to the Games, including helping to put together bids for Philadelphia to host the event.

Bill Schlough, WG’98, has been hooked on international athletics ever since he served as the technology manager at the Stanford venue of the 1994 World Cup. He’s been involved in multiple Olympics on the information-technology side of things, including at Atlanta, Salt Lake City in 2002 and Torino in 2006. He’s also had the honor of working on two different bids as part of the organizing committee to bring the Games to his hometown of San Francisco.

Trying to procure the rights to the Olympics is no simple task, Schlough says. In fact, it takes years of preparation just to submit to the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), with no guarantee of a happy ending.

“When you submit to the USOC, they are looking for the city that has the best chance to win the bid at the international level,” says Schlough, who is currently the senior vice president and chief information officer of Major League Baseball’s San Francisco Giants.

“When we prepared our bid, our bid book [was] almost a foot thick,” he adds.

Schlough continues his quest for his own personal gold as part of the team gearing for a potential bid for Reno/Tahoe.

“My dream is to be part of a bid from start to finish and go through the entire process. It entails drawing support from the community. And there can be a lot of politics involved. But the whole process is a lot of fun,” he says.

Once-in-a-Lifetime Assignments

Lining Mu, WG’09, got her own taste of Olympics politics. Prior to the 2008 games in Beijing, the International Olympic Committee set up a representative office in the Chinese capital, and Mu took a position there servicing global sponsors for the Games. It proved far more arduous than she imagined it would be.

“At first, I thought the Olympic brand is so popular and the marketing power is so massive globally and that we wouldn’t incur lots of trouble in developing new sponsors,” says Mu, who returned to Beijing after Wharton and established her own equity fund.

“On the contrary,” she continued, “it needed so much efforts in coordination among the IOC, BOCOG (Beijing Organizing Committee of Olympic Games) and those global sponsors because [the] sponsors spend a huge sponsorship fee and develop an expensive marketing program during the short Olympic period.”

Though her time involved in the Games was brief—just a year-and-a-half—Polly Kelekis, WG’01, relished the Athens Olympics on two levels. It was the first time the event was hosted in the place it debuted a century earlier. The locale also served as a celebration of Kelekis’ Greek heritage. To make things even sweeter, the Games doubled as a professional opportunity.

Kelekis was manager of the volunteer department for the opening and closing ceremonies. It was a job that required the Massachusetts native to wear many hats. She was responsible for recruiting thousands of volunteers and conducting countless interviews, and on a day-to-day basis she ensured that everyone got where they needed to be and that operations went off without a hitch.

“While I was there, I was struck by the sheer volumes of volunteers that came to work there,” says Kelekis, who is currently chief operating officer of MicroDreams, an NGO that aims to provide the poor with economic opportunities.

“To get everything up and running, you have to make sure to match the right jobs to people with the right skill sets,” Kelekis adds, regarding one leadership lesson she hurdled.

Like Kelekis, Anne Bovaird Nevins, C’99, WG’07, had an Olympic experience that focused on management. Following a coordinator post in the White House Office of Cabinet Affairs, Nevins earned a job with the Salt Lake Organizing Committee to help with the arrangements for the 2002 Winter Games. The crux of her position was simple: manage the logistics and the hospitality arrangements for visiting U.S. dignitaries and government officials.

Yet it was a job replete with challenges, Nevins says, as she and her colleagues organized an event just months after 9/11.

“When we were doing our planning, there were so many different security aspects that we had to consider,” says Nevins, who now serves as vice president of market development for the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. “And you’re working with many different people in order to make things happen. You have to coordinate with customs. You have to coordinate with INS.”

Though she spent just over a year in her role in Salt Lake, Nevins will never forget the experience. In fact, taking part in the Olympics was something she always had her eye on.

“When I was younger, I had these dreams of being an Olympic gymnast, which had gone unfulfilled. But then to get to Salt Lake and to see everything that’s going on around you, it was a very inspiring experience,” she says.

Editor’s note: Read the side story to this article, “Scoring the Economics of the Olympics.”

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