Why we love the Olympics

In this edition of Campus Voices, FIU News asked International Relations Professor Paul Kowert to reflect on why the Olympic Games generate so much excitement around the world. The 2012 London Olympics open on Friday, July 27.

Professor Paul Kowert

The father of the modern Olympic Games, French educator Pierre de Coubertin, said that the Games were a celebration of the “springtime of humanity.” Every four years, we are reborn through an athletic spectacle that has no rival. Every two years if we include humanity’s wintertime.

The modern Olympics represent much more than athletic achievement. The Games are a source of pride to the host country, and a potential windfall (or white elephant) for the host city. They have served as a media platform for superpowers and for terrorists. And they are a symbol of courage and sportsmanship on one hand, and of occasional scandal on the other.

Of course we love the spectacle of athletes in their prime. A lucky few will be revered as cereal box icons. Yet we invest the Olympics with importance for other reasons. The Games matter because they are a competition not only among athletes, but among us all. The Olympics are a competition of countries.

This is apparent from the opening ceremonies, when athletes enter the Olympic stadium not as individuals, or grouped by sport, but in national teams. They wear their country’s colors, and are preceded by their flag. They enter the games to fight, at least symbolically, for their country.

The opening and closing ceremonies themselves drive this point home. At an estimated cost of $100 million, the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics sent the unmistakable message that China had assumed its mantle as a 21st century superpower. In countless ways—the spectacle of Fou drummers, displays of fireworks and calligraphy, recitations of Confucian poetry, and Yang Peiyi’s vocal performance of “Ode to the Motherland”—this opening ceremony told a Chinese story. Even the timing of the ceremony, at 8:08 pm on Aug. 8, 2008, reflected the Chinese association of the number 8 with prosperity.

As a nationalistic spectacle, the Beijing Olympics were unprecedented only in their scale. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union embraced such pageantry with the same zeal. In London this year, the opening ceremony is entitled “Isles of Wonder.” According to its artistic director, Danny Boyle, it will celebrate “the exuberant creativity of the British genius.” Four years hence, it will be Brazil’s turn to dress up the first South American Games in green and yellow.

Why do we need to transform a competition among athletes into a test of national prowess, complete with a daily tally of the national medal count? The obvious answer is that patriotism and pride demand it. But this begs the question. Why is national pride at stake when Usain Bolt seeks to defend his title as the fastest man on Earth? Why is his victory also a Jamaican victory?

Marilyn Brewer, a social psychologist and former president of the American Psychological Association, argues that we all share two deep and contradictory needs: a desire to be distinct from other people, and a desire to belong.

The first desire fuels competition. Each of us harbors the need to be special, to possess some unique quality that is a part of our self-esteem. Success—in sports, business, politics, or another arena—satisfies this need.

The second desire, however, is the one that builds teams. We may wish to be better than other people, but we also want to belong. We find satisfaction in groups that we cannot as individuals, and the success of our “team” fulfills this need.

For most of us, the largest group to which we belong consciously is our country. Our patriotism is one more way of belonging.

And we have learned that this way of belonging is especially important. We devote great effort and resources to promoting national spirit. We teach our children to sing patriotic songs and respect the flag. We show them monuments to our victories, and sometimes failures, in war. In countless ways, we teach each generation that this group matters more than others.

Athletic victories are a part of this process. And they do more than merely play to our national ego. They tell us what kind of nation we are: fast and agile, creative, or simply endowed with overwhelming power. They are part of the way we craft our national story. The problem with belonging to large groups, like the nation, is that abstraction grows with size. The nation could be a vague and amorphous thing, but symbols like the flag or the American eagle make the nation real. And the Olympics are the perfect stage for the display of national symbols that tell us about ourselves, our friends, and even our enemies.

So, we have precisely the Olympics that we want and need. This quadrennial competition among nations is a competition for all of us. We thrill to our athletes’ victories, and suffer their tragic losses. And either way, we belong to a team. Warmed up by the 4th of July, I can’t help it: I’m ready to cheer.