Don't Blame It On Rio: Strong Leadership Lessons to Learn From Olympians

gabby-simoneWhen I was about 10 years old, six-time Olympic medalist Amanda Beard visited my community swim team. We all sat by the pool as she passed around one of her medals and spoke to us about discipline, passion, hard work and the importance of giving it your all.I remember being a little starstruck by the woman my family watched win gold in the 2004 Olympics and amazed that she was even real. But there she was, a flesh and blood example of exactly the message she was trying to convey to us: we were all capable of accomplishing our most daring goals if we used the right tools. It was a strong leadership lesson.[bctt tweet=“Female athletes and the Olympic games are capable of making large advances in women’s leadership”]This is not to say that I went on to pursue a swimming career, but this kind of strong leadership demonstrates that female athletes and the institution of the Olympic games are capable of making large advances in women’s leadership and parity.The Olympics are a valuable platform for role models. The U.S. Women’s Olympic Gymnastics Team announced its roster recently for the 2016 games. Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez, and Madison Kocian will compete at the Rio Games in August as what Brandon Penny of Team USA has called, “one of the most decorated and competitive women’s gymnastics teams ever.”In addition to being some of the fiercest athletes the sport has ever seen, these young women will also be the highly visible role models of strong leadership for girls watching the Games all over the world.The Olympics consistently achieve record viewership, with the highest number of viewers ever (more than 217 million) watching the London Olympics in 2012. Individual athletes become pop culture icons, particularly gymnasts. According to NBC Sports, Gabby Douglas and McKayla Maroney were the “most-clicked athletes” during the London Games. Also, “Team USA Women’s Gold Medal soccer match is NBC Sports Network’s most watched event in history with 4.35 million viewers,” according to NBC Sports.Female athletic role models and the examples of their strong leadership are critical.[bctt tweet=“Female athletic role models and the examples of their strong leadership are critical.”]Researchers in a 2007 Southwestern University and Rice University study found that, “Women were more likely than men to have female athletic role models and to have cross-gender athletic role models… While men primarily sought out role models based on their qualities as an athlete, women valued role models for both their professional and personal qualities.”It is important to remember that while Olympic athletes are scrutinized for their perfection within their sport and personal lives, no person is perfect. Perfection is the theme of the recent Reebok ads featuring former UFC Women’s Bantamweight champion fighter Ronda Rousey, who says in the #PerfectNever campaign: “Perfect never gets a shot at redemption.”Perfect or not, the personal qualities of these young women leaders have become the pinnacle examples of strong leadership for athletes and for young women everywhere.Douglas was the first black gymnast to win an individual Olympic gold medal in 2012 and has become a role model for children of military parents. Hernandez will be the second Puerto Rican gymnast to represent the Unites States at the Olympics and told The Guardian, “I feel I could be a role model to other Hispanic gymnasts interested in the sport but I also want them to understand the importance of being focused, determined, and not giving up, despite all the struggles.”The Olympics set a precedent for institutional leadership around the world. In addition to the individual athletes the Olympics showcases, the Games exist within a multinational organization under the leadership of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the International Federations (IF), and the National Olympic Committees (NOCs). The expansive and global nature of the Olympic Movement make its incorporation and promotion of women’s leadership an example for strong leadership structures worldwide.Recently, IOC member, Nicole Hoevertsz addressed the United Nations at an event co-hosted by UN Women, Brazil, and the IOC in tandem with The 60th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York (CSW60). The event was on the theme of “2030 Agenda—The Contribution of Sport to Achieve Gender Equality and End Violence Against Women and Girls.”In an article on, Hoevertsz is quoted saying, “While recognizing the progress made, the IOC fully admits that gender parity at the Olympic Games is not enough. We thus invest in bringing more women into sports leadership. The sports world, like other sectors, will need to double its efforts to tackle gender inequalities such as unequal political participation and other forms of discrimination.”While promoting equitable leadership is a priority for the IOC, parity is a work in progress.In 2009, the IOC Women and Sport Commission commissioned a study thorough Loughborough University, “Gender Equality and Leadership in Olympic Bodies.” The research objectives were “to establish what the current situation was in relation to the recruitment of women to executive committees of the NOCs and IFs, to understand the context and experience of those women who have submitted themselves to election for senior roles, [and] to identify policy implications for Olympic bodies in relation to promotion of gender equity in the leadership and management of Olympic sport.”The researchers concluded with a list of recommendations for achieving gender equity in Olympic leadership. For example, it was recommended that the Commission “[consider] making an annual award to NOCs or IFs which promote gender equity in a consistent or imaginative fashion.”In 2014, the IOC adopted The Olympic Agenda 2020 which comprised of 40 recommendations for the future and betterment of the Olympics. Among the recommendations were to “foster gender equality” and “implement a targeted recruitment process [to achieve an ideal balance, including gender balance].”The IOC has since been proactive with its goals of gender parity. “Nicole Hoevertsz explained that the IOC has trained hundreds of women on five continents in leadership skills and in the ability to identify and dismantle areas of discrimination. It is creating a mentorship programme with iconic sports figures and female sports administrators; involving young female athletes in youth sessions at IOC World Conferences; and ensuring that both men and women are targeted in new system-wide outreach programmes.”The Games are capable of reaching more people than almost any other single event and for this reason it is held up as an example of leadership and organization. As Hoevertsz stated at the UN, “Sport can help break down barriers and challenge gender norms, not only on the field of play, but also in the workplace, at home, in schools and in other aspects of society.”