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8 leadership lessons from women Olympians competing in Tokyo

It’s the first gender-balanced Olympic Games in history, and there’s a lot to learn from the athletes competing.

8 leadership lessons from women Olympians competing in Tokyo
Left to right: Valarie Allman; Hidilyn Diaz; Jasmine Camacho-Quinn [Photos: Kaz Photography/Getty Images; CHRIS GRAYTHEN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images; Christian Petersen/Getty Images]

There are few events that symbolize the pinnacles of victory and the depths of defeat more than the Olympic games. Athletes train for years—or decades—to reach the highest level of their game. Then, over the course of a few days, or even a few seconds, all of the blood, sweat, and tears that went into preparation are tested, for better or worse.

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This year’s summer Olympic Games in Tokyo are historic—and not only because they were delayed a year because of the pandemic. The Olympic Games in Tokyo are the first gender-balanced games in history, according to the International Olympic Committee. On Team USA, the 2020 roster includes 329 women and 284 men, marking the third straight Olympic Games with more women on the U.S. roster. In the 2020 Paralympic Games, which will kick off in August in Tokyo, 40.5% of the athletes will be women, a record for the games.

And those women are driving the narrative of the games, too, launching conversations about everything from mental health to inequality and inclusion to kindness. In addition to Simone Biles’ memorable lessons about mental health and self-care, here are eight leadership lessons the women of the 2020 Olympics have taught us during these games:

Go ahead—be the first

The women at the 2020 Olympics have been racking up firsts.  Jasmine Camacho-Quinn won Puerto Rico’s first gold medal in track and second in its history. Anastasija Zolotic became the first American woman to win Olympic gold in taekwondo. The Philippines’ Hidilyn Diaz, a weightlifter, won her country’s first gold medal since it began sending a delegation to the game nearly a century ago in 1924.

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Don’t be afraid to try something new

Discus thrower Valarie Allman won Team USA’s first 2020 track and field gold medal this week. Allman started her career as a dancer, touring the country when she was in high school. She joined the track team in high school and tried discus so she could score an invitation to the throwers’ annual spaghetti dinner. She found she had a knack for it—the strength, balance, and technique she learned in her dance training helped—and went on to throw at Stanford University.

Age does not define you

The age range of the women athletes in Tokyo may surprise you. Among the youngest athletes competing are Hend Zaza, 12, from Syria, competing in table tennis. Skateboarders Sky Brown, 13, Team Great Britain, and Japan’s Kokona Hiraki, 12, are also among the youngest Olympians. Skateboarder Momiji Nishiya, 13, won gold in the women’s skateboarding street event.

The oldest Olympian at the 2020 games is Mary Hanna, a 66-year-old equestrian from Australia. At 46, Uzbekistan gymnast Oksana Chusovitina competed in her eighth Olympic Games in Tokyo. Seven athletes in their 30s and 40s, including three women, are making their Olympic debuts at the 2020 games.

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Keep going—even when it seems grim

Anyone who has ever had a soul-crushing day felt for Team USA gymnast Jade Carey when she ended Sunday in tears. A stutter-step before the vault left her in eighth place in the event, with no hope for a medal. While some may have let the defeat shake them, Carey still had work to do. She crushed her floor event the following evening, triumphantly taking home gold for Team USA.

Speak up for what matters to you

Felix has already earned six Olympic gold medals and three bronze, making her the most decorated track and field athlete in history. Felix has partnered with the Women’s Sports Foundation and sportswear company Athleta to create a child care grant program for athletes who are mothers to help defray the costs of child care for women in training.

Felix has also been a fierce advocate for women in sports. She was one of a handful of women who broke their nondisclosure agreements with Nike in 2019 to bring attention to the company’s policy of reducing sponsorship pay to pregnant athletes. A New York Times exposé and Felix’s own op-ed led to a change in the company’s pregnancy pay policy. Felix, whose daughter was delivered prematurely by Cesarean section due to her pre-eclampsia—a pregnancy condition characterized by dangerously high blood pressure—is also an advocate for disparities in maternal health care for women of color.

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Change the (unfair) rules

Female athlete’s uniforms also became a flashpoint at the 2020 Olympic games. First, members of Norway’s women’s beach handball team were fined 150 Euros each for wearing shorts instead of bikini bottoms, as required by the International Handball Federation. While men can wear shorts as long as roughly four inches above the knee, women must wear bikini bottoms that are no more than four inches long. The act of rebellion has sparked an international outcry, an internal review by the sport’s governing body, and an offer by singer and songwriter P!nk to pay their fines.

The German women’s gymnastics team competed in full-body unitards to protest the “sexualization” of athletes in gymnastics, according to a tweet by the German Gymnastics Federation.

Shine your own light

While some called her “the Boss’s daughter,” equestrian Jessica Springsteen, whose father is rock legend Bruce Springsteen, has done the work to let her talent speak for itself. She’s currently ranked 14th in the world in her event. And while she didn’t qualify for an individual medal in Tokyo, she’ll compete in the team competition on Friday.

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Kindness matters

Belgian triathlete Claire Michel was devastated when she finished her event last Tuesday. Competitor Lotte Miller of Norway was caught on film consoling Michel, who was sobbing after the event. In a pep talk for the ages, Miller told Michel, “You’re a f***ing fighter. This is Olympic spirit and you’ve got it 100%,” reported the Associated Press.

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About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites

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