When the first modern Olympics were held in Athens in 1896, there were no women’s changing rooms to be found. That’s because the total number of female athletes at the games was exactly… zero. By 1920, the year American women got the right to vote, about 60 women competed, alongside more than 2,500 men. Fast forward to 2016: When the Olympic torch is lit in Rio, expectations are that 45 percent of the athletes there will be women.

That matters, because sports are a crucial training ground for women’s leadership. One study of female business execs found that an astonishing 94 percent had participated in sports; three-fourths of them said that sports can accelerate women’s leadership and career potential. Certainly, sports—by exposing players to repeated failure as well as success—builds resilience, assertiveness and confidence.

Wilma Rudolph

See Wilma win: At the 1960 Olympics, “fastest woman in the world” Wilma Rudolph won three golds, including for the 100-meter, above. See more photos of history-making women in sports.

The U.S. recognized the importance of competition for girls in 1972, with the passage of Title IX, the landmark law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in education, including sports. The result: an explosion of women’s high school and college sports, creating a pipeline that often funnels stellar athletes straight to the Olympics. The Rio games, then, are a fresh opportunity for women to break more ground—and more records.
We believe there are few moments in history when we can move fast and we can move forward. Our moment is now!

Melanne Verveer is the former U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues. She is the director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace & Security.

Kim Azzarelli is a business, philanthropic, and legal advisor focused on advancing women and girls. She is Chair and Co-founder of Cornell Law School’s Avon Global Center for Women and Justice.

Together, Ambassador Melanne Verveer and Ms. Azzarelli co-founded Seneca Women and co-authored the book Fast Forward: How Women Can Achieve Power and Purpose.