Lessons From Olympic Athletes: Representation, Diversity and Purpose

Siu-Hin Wan, MD, FACC

In the first part of this two-part series, I shared my thoughts on how Olympians have inspired and reminded us of the importance of resilience and innovation. In this second part, I describe how Olympians have strived to improve diversity and representation in the sport, and how athletes have found purpose by inspiring the next generation.

Eileen Gu and Representation

Eileen Gu, the San Francisco-born freestyle skier competing for China, showed how her desire to innovate and push the boundaries of the sport motivated her to two gold medals and a silver medal at the 2022 Winter Olympics. Perhaps equally or even more important, Gu also described finding purpose in improving representation and diversity in the field of freestyle skiing. 

In a widely viewed social media post, a 12-year-old Gu gave a speech on Title IX, a federal civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools and education. She shared the importance of representation and equity in sports, and how she hopes her achievements will inspire the next generation of female athletes to break boundaries. Gu utilizes her newfound popularity from success at the Winter Olympics as a platform to encourage other women to be strong and independent. Whether it be pushing the boundaries of the sport, or inspiring the next generation of athletes, Gu reminds us that purpose in life is more important than achievement alone.

Erin Jackson and Diversity

Erin Jackson just started learning to speed skate on the ice in 2016.  Having previously been a successful in-line skater, she transitioned to racing on the ice in time to compete in the 2018 Olympics, finishing in 24th place in the 500-meter race. In 2006, Shani Davis from Chicago became the first African American individual gold medalist in a Winter Olympics, in sports traditionally dominated by Northern Europe and North America. Now, in 2022, and only six years after learning to ice skate, Jackson became the first African American woman to win an individual gold at the Winter Games.

For me, growing up as an Asian American, I never saw much diversity in the Winter Olympics. Jackson herself said that her inspiration is to be a good example and to see more minorities in the U.S. participating in winter sports. She stated regarding representation, she wishes her story to reach the right person, a little girl who becomes interested in the ice rink.

In medicine – and in cardiology in particular – there is a need to increase diversity. Among many cardiology subspecialties, there remains a large gender gap in employment. Minorities are much less likely to become cardiologists, and those who make it into the field have difficulty obtaining leadership roles. Clinical research populations are vastly skewed towards White people, whereas Black, Hispanic, and Asian groups are greatly underrepresented. Recently, there has been greater focus on gender and racial disparities, and efforts to combat inequalities, but the unequal representation persists.

As a strong athlete, Jackson proved that there should be no barriers to diversify the new generation of athletes, starting with inspiring everyone that they can achieve their goals. 

I believe that many of the solutions regarding these disparities need to be from the ground up, focusing on greater exposure and representation for the younger generation, so they can see that becoming a physician is possible. Just as Eileen Gu and Erin Jackson have done, those of us in cardiology have a responsibility to ensure that the field continues to grow in terms of diversity and representation. Only then, will the demographics of the physician population be more similar to the demographics of the patients we serve.  Only then, will the demographics of clinical trials better reflect the population actually being treated. Not only is diversity and representation morally the right path, but it also ensures a vibrant future in cardiology where different perspectives and ideas contribute to a dynamic, innovative field.



Siu-Hin Wan, MD, FACC

This article was authored by Siu-Hin Wan, MD, FACC, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

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