“You know us as athletes. We’re so much more.”
So reads the tagline of the “We Are Team USA TISI ” anthem video that the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee revealed Wednesday to kick off being 100 Days Out from this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, which will begin with the Opening Ceremony scheduled for July 23.
The video features many familiar faces. There’s track superstar Allyson Felix; snowboarding queen Jamie Anderson; wheelchair basketball national champion Aaron Gouge; dominant USWNT forward Megan Rapinoe; long jump champion and Paralympian Lex Gillette; record-holding shot putter Michelle Carter.
But identifying those athletes by the sports they play is the exactly what the new campaign is asking us to look beyond. They may be decorated Olympians, world champions, record-breakers and MVPs.
But they’re also single moms, full-time dads, healthcare workers, yogis, bakers, veterans, musicians and even sneakerheads.
“The engaging personalities of Team USA and the idea of having such a diverse team really enables a variety of fans to be able to connect with the athletes in different ways,” USOPC chief growth & strategy officer Katie Bynum told me. “The goal is putting them at the center of the storytelling, not only for their on-the-field achievements as record-breakers and world champions, but who they are as people.”
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Every two years, the Team USA athletes, for a moment in time, dominate the media cycle and screens across America. Viewers watch them set new records and, for a select few, have shimmering medals placed around their necks. We see the athletes sweat, bleed, and cry—all live.
But when the Olympics are over, many sports fans simply forget to think about Team USA athletes. And it’s been well-documented that Olympians struggle with anxiety and depression, as well as a sense of aimlessness and an identity crisis after the Games end. That issue was explored in The Weight of Gold, a gripping, if hard-to-watch, recent documentary produced and narrated by Michael Phelps,
How do Team USA athletes’ lives change after the last medal is given out? For those at the highest levels of their respective sports, they likely return right to the competition circuit, traveling for world cups and world championships and training in their offseasons.
But many Team USA athletes go right back into the community, living their normal lives as we do. They may be working beside you on an overnight shift in the hospital, shopping for the same sneakers as you, or even serving beside you on active military duty.
“The person you see sharing her life on Instagram is the same person training to win a medal,” said two-time BMX world championship medalist Hannah Roberts, who has qualified for Tokyo 2020. “We are Olympians and Paralympians, but we’re also sisters, scholars, parents, artists, veterans and so much more. We all have special passions that make us who we are and connect us to our communities.”
Unlike most other NOCs and NPCs, the USOPC receives no government funding. It and the athletes are supported through through media and sponsorship rights and fundraising. This can present challenges to Team USA athletes who can’t support themselves solely their sport or who don’t have access to training facilities. However, it is also part of what gives the national team its distinctly American identity—passionate, hard-working and a little scrappy.
The “We Are Team USA” campaign certainly celebrates side hustles, but it goes beyond what any of the athletes do for a living—on or off the field of play. The goal was to add a dimension to who these athletes are—and who fans understand them to be.
Jamie Anderson is a fiercely competitive snowboarder on the mountain—but off the mountain, she’s a soft-spoken yogi who prioritizes an Ayurvedic lifestyle.
Lex Gillette, the totally blind current world record holder in the long jump, is also a massive sneakerhead who can identify his entire collection by feel.
Melissa Stockwell is a Paralympic triathlete, but she’s also a former U.S. Army officer.
“I hope fans feel more connected to our athletes,” Bynum said. “And when they’re more connected to our athletes, they’re going to celebrate them and support them with us. The ambition is that they represent the best of American potential. If they’re inspiring and uniting us as they’ve done before, and we feel a deeper connection to team USA, there’s an opportunity only Team USA can accomplish in that way: the outcome is greater inspiration and unity for out country, because everybody sees themselves as a part of Team USA.”
The diversity of sport in the Tokyo 2021 program has also, in turn, brought about a more diverse Team USA, including in race, gender and experience. Five new sports were added to these Games: skateboarding, surfing, sport climbing, karate and the return of baseball/softball, while freestyle BMX joins BMX cycling as a new discipline. In 1991, an IOC initiative was passed requiring that any new sport joining the Olympic program must have disciplines for both genders.
Tokyo 2021 will be the first gender-equal Olympic Games, and the addition of these sports—and these spots for women—has meant a crop of new faces on Team USA, from skateboarding hopeful Mariah Duran to Hannah Roberts to 19-year-old surfing phenom Caroline Marks.
“This journey to the Olympics has been crazy,” Duran said at last week’s USOPC Media Summit. “We’re kind of paving the way for the people after us.”
And the lead-up to this year’s postponed Games is made all the more impactful for the athletes who were able to delay their Olympic bid. Some retired in the interim; some hadn’t yet qualified when the world shut down and still don’t know if they’ll be able to. Training was interrupted; priorities changed. For those who still have Tokyo on the horizon, there’s an extra layer of motivation this time around.
“It’s been tough but it’s been worth it,” gymnast Simone Biles said at USOPC Media Summit. “I think every athlete would say we’re not gonna give up and we’re gonna keep striving for perfection.”
The debut of the anthem video is only the beginning of the USOPC’s campaign, which will run all the way through the lead-up to Tokyo and then continue into the lead-up to Beijing. Team USA social media accounts will highlight many of the athletes, including a new focus on TikTok. Bynum says the committee recognized the “unique opportunity” to promote Team USA athletes with two Olympic Games falling six months apart.
“There’s so much dimension to Team USA athletes,” Bynum said. “Hopefully everyone can see themselves in the vast representation across Team USA.”