Why Diversity = Winning for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Teams

June 16, 2016

For U.S. athletes about to go to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the goal is to bring home as many medals as possible. And recently, Team USA discovered something beyond talent and training that can help them achieve that goal: diversity.

In a recent study, the United States Olympic Committee, which oversees oversees the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams, found that teams that are more diverse throughout all levels of the organization tend to win more medals than teams that are not. That holds true for both the Summer and Winter Olympics. 

"Our teams that win medals look like our fan base, and that's important," says Jason Thompson, director of diversity and inclusion for the USOC. Thompson is responsible for promoting diversity efforts for Team USA's 47 independent governing bodies, which run the teams that compete at the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Youth Olympic Games, and Pan and Parapan American Games. 

Team USA's finding that “diversity equals winning” jibes with what non-athletic organizations have also learned about the benefits of diversity.

  • A study by consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that the most racially and ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry medians.
  • An MIT study found that being gender-diverse could increase companies’ revenue by roughly 41%.
  • According to the Washington Post, a Gallup survey found that retail and hospitality companies that are gender-diverse do better financially than those dominated by one gender.

While Thompson says the USOC doesn’t yet have proof of causation for why exactly their diverse teams are more successful, there may be a psychological component at work.

An ethnically diverse team, for instance, might attract a larger, more diverse, and enthusiastic group of fans who follow the team and turn out for events. That in turn might inspire the athletes to perform better.

Or maybe an atmosphere that values diversity may make the athletes feel more comfortable. “When you look at our LGBTQ communities,” says Thompson, ”many of our athletes say, 'I feel like I can feel comfortable sharing who I am with my team and can compete without reservation [because] I'm in a safe space with my team.’ That probably does bring a certain amount of energy to our team and I've had several athletes tell me that."

Whatever the reason, diversity’s effect on the medal tally is all the motivation the USOC needs to make it a priority. Thompson says the USOC is working to recruit, promote and retain a diverse group throughout all levels of Team USA: from the athletes to the coaching staffs to team executives.

"In some contexts, you'll find a women's team that has all male coaches," says Thompson. "We don't necessarily have a problem with male coaches. But I think it's fair to assume that if the team is all female, we should have some females on the coaching staff. We think that in order for us to remain competitive, that would have to happen at some point. And we need to be cognizant of those challenges.”

With its proven effect on morale, productivity and effectiveness, promoting diversity can be a winning strategy for all kinds of teams — whether you compete in an Olympic arena or the business arena.

Want to hear more about USOC’s diversity efforts? Jason Thompson recently hosted a LinkedIn webinar where he presented diversity best practices and answered questions about:

  • How you can make diversity and inclusion a priority
  • How you can improve diversity through recruiting
  • How to best use resources in your diversity recruitment efforts

The Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games are a perfect chance to launch a gold-medal winning diversity effort. Listen to Thompson's webinar here.

*Image from Team USA

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