August 6, 2021 / CPOVs

Irreverent, Unpolished, and Exuberant, Gen Z is Shaking Up the Tokyo Olympics

Chelsea Carrasquillo, Brand Planner

Here we are, a year and a half after the world was brought to a halt by the devastation of a global pandemic, and perhaps one of the most exciting beacons of hope that we’re coming out the other side has been the arrival of the Tokyo Olympics. While it won’t look like the Olympics of the past for many reasons, one of those is the thunderous arrival of the Gen Z Olympians. Irreverent, unpolished, but infectiously excited, these young athletes arein their typical fashionshaking things up, and they may just be what makes the 2020 Olympics so worth watching. 

The first digitally-native generation, they’ve grown up with smartphones in their pockets and therefore megaphones in their hands, and that’s led them to become a generation that values their individual and collective voice above almost anything else. It’s the unfiltered, expletive-laden Gen Z voice that can be heard ‘round the world this summer. 

Where previous generations have shown up to the Olympics poised and polished, a product of intense coaching with a reverence for the games, Gen Z athletes possess a unique balance of endearing, over-the-top excitement mingled with laid-back indifference. While you could equate their lack of polish (and lack of filter) with a lack of respect for their position, their genuine excitement is really rather endearing, and there’s something very pure in their presentation of themselves. Olympic athletes have always shouldered an immense amount of responsibility, and while it should be so, young athletes were often stripped of the ability to be kids and to behave as such. High-level athletes, especially at the Olympic caliber, are pushed from childhood not only in their sport, but also in how they represent their country. That comes with not just extreme physical burdens, but often mental and emotional burdens, as well. There’s something refreshing about the Gen Z athletes’ ability to brush that off and be unapologetically themselves. 

If anything, it’s apparent that Gen Z views their position on the world stage with immense gravity, recognizing that they’ve been granted a very public platform. The Gen Z and young Millennial athletes are amassing huge followings on social media, particularly on TikTok, and are using their platforms to give fans a behind-the-scenes look into what’s involved in their training, to introduce new audiences to their sports, to speak to the burden of competing at such a high level, and to serve as role models for a diverse group of up-and-coming athletes. 

Brands need to keep in mind that the values reflected in the Gen Z athletes ring true for the generation, and may be the key to connecting with this audience. 

Ensure a Foundation of Authenticity

Gen Z holds authenticity as one of their top virtues, and that’s something that can be seen in both their self-expression and in the way they interact with brands. The imperative for brands that want to establish trust with this generation is to ensure that they are prioritizing the things that Gen Z cares about (for example, social justice or the environment), but doing so in a way that’s authentic. This young generation is essentially a giant B.S.-detector and as a result, brands have to be able to walk the walk if they’re going to win them over.

Adapt to Gen Z’s Infamous Irreverence

Gen Z is a generation that doesn’t want to play by the rules, they want to rewrite them (remember when Daenerys said “I’m not going to stop the wheel, I’m going to break the wheel”?). There’s an interesting dichotomy that exists within the generation, and that’s that in that they don’t take themselves—or much society’s expectations—too seriously (see the lax attitude of some of the Olympians), but that there are some things they take extremely seriously (issues of injustice and equality, for one). Brands that want to connect with this generation have to find a way to share in that attitude. That could manifest itself in the transparency and authenticity previously discussed, or even in a self-deprecating sense of humor that’s so resonant with this younger generation. Brands have to tap into that Gen Z mindset that while some things should be taken seriously (e.g. activism), the rest can be laughed off. 

Make Room for Real Storytelling

Finally, brands need to understand that Gen Z’s desire for authenticity goes hand-in-hand with their desire for real content (i.e. real stories of real people). Apart from the Olympic competition itself, Gen Zers said that they’re most interested in the human interest stories of the athletes (19 percent) and behind-the-scenes footage of athletes training and socializing away from the competition (19 percent), which is precisely the content that the Gen Z athletes are providing via their social media. Brands that can feature this type of compelling, emotional storytelling and provide an additional platform for young people to tell their stories through their own voice will win the hearts of this young generation of viewers.   

Love it or hate it, Gen Z’s modus operandi is not to adapt to ‘the way things are,’ but rather to force the world around them to adapt. Personally, I’m excited to see the Olympics have a little less polish and a little more personality going forward.