The Paradox of the Olympic Spirit
Issue 44: How the Olympics can create collective celebration amidst national competition
The women's slopestyle snowboarding finale came to a dramatic conclusion on Saturday. American Julia Marino had taken the top score early on with a fantastic run and held off competitor after competitor who just couldn't seem to match her. After every run, Marino remained in the lead.
It came to the very last run by the very last competitor, Zoi Sadowski-Synnott. The 20-year-old New Zealander laid down a brilliant performance, putting Marino's top position in jeopardy. But as she made it to the finishing area to await the judge's scores, a gleeful Marino enfolded her in a congratulatory hug.
When the score came in and Sadowski-Synnott clinched the gold, all of her competitors flung themselves at her in a massive celebratory embrace in the snow.
This spontaneous moment of collective joy speaks to the cohesive and supportive norms of the competitive snowboarding community—a stark contrast to the stony faced or angry reactions we are used to seeing from bested competitors in other sports.
As Marino said to an interviewer afterwards, "This sport isn't about being to yourself... The only reason I am where I am today is because of these girls around me, because they push me to do my best... To see her put down that run...I was just so happy for her."
The 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing are now in full swing. With competitors from over 100 countries and an estimated audience of several billion people around the globe, the Games provided a common experience–a shared moment of inspiration and enjoyment–for a huge swath of humanity. And fostering a sense of solidarity among the world’s peoples is exactly what the Olympics are meant to be about. As the International Olympic Committee puts it:
The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practised in accordance with Olympism and its values.
Yet, the Olympics are also perhaps humanity’s most elaborate ritual of nationalism. From the Parade of Nations during the opening ceremony to the flags that drape the medalists, national pride is everywhere on display. How do the Olympics balance this tug-of-war between national pride and collective celebration?
Competing for National Glory
The first of the modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896. Although people from fourteen countries attended the Games in Athens, the athletes did not compete on behalf of national teams but rather as individuals. By 1906, however, the Games had become a contest between countries, and national identities took today's central role.
Research suggests that the lofty goals of international peace and unity, symbolized by the Games’ interlocking rings, exist in an uneasy tension with the nationalist sentiments unleashed by inter-nation competition.
Youngju Kim and Jinkyung Na dubbed this the “Olympic paradox” in a recent paper:
The Olympics aim to promote peace and unity across the globe through sports. Ironically, however…the Olympics could be associated with intergroup biases because the Olympics not only activate social/national identity as a citizen, but also highlight intense competition between countries.
Sure enough, they observed that Korean citizens’ attitudes (and possibly behaviors) toward out-groups were more negative during the 2016 and 2018 Olympic Games than before.
Similarly, although the motto for the 2008 Games in Beijing was “One World, One Dream,” Shirley Cheng and colleagues found that those games increased Chinese citizens’ perceptions of cultural differences between China and the West. In-group favoring biases also appeared to increase—especially among low identifiers, the people who aren’t usually biased in favor of their own group.
Competition Rooted in Cooperation
This is not to say that the Olympics inevitably worsen relations between countries. There is something to be said, after all, for nations choosing to compete with each other on the slopes and at the skating rink rather than on the battleground or the high seas.
Aas we write in our book 'The Power of Us' competition is paradoxically, very often a fundamentally cooperative act. We watch events during the Olympics that are hard-fought contests between fierce competitors, yet they are founded on deeper cooperation. However hard they battle, they agree to abide by a shared and mutually agreed-upon set of rules.
The International Olympic Committee refers to this as the Olympic Spirit, "which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity, and fair play.” This spirit takes many forms.
As the Associated Press reported, at the 2020 Olympics, “the world’s most competitive athletes have been captured showing gentleness and warmth to one another–celebrating, pep-talking, wiping away one another’s tears of disappointment.”
The spirit of international cooperation extends from the track to the Olympic Village. As for previous Games, Japanese organizers ordered 160,000 condoms to be handed out to athletes in the Olympic Village to hook up safely. (Of course, the athletes are not supposed to hook up due to COVID protocols, so the organizers have asked athletes to keep the condoms as “souvenirs” rather than use them!)
These are hardly the sorts of actions that spring to mind when people envision intergroup conflict.
The Olympics exemplify the principle that we can only compete peacefully if we agree at a deeper level to cooperate and play by the same sets of rules. The same is true for other forms of competition. There are also cooperative rules in politics, written in constitutions, embedded in institutions, and carved out by tradition. Shared rules allow social groups and political rivals to engage in fierce debate without resorting to force and bloodshed.
Group identity does not always lead to prejudice and discrimination, dislike, and disregard–indeed, the assumption that these inevitable outcomes are one of the most prominent myths about identity. Rather, the norms we create and embody determine how we treat members of other groups. These norms are fundamental to how groups interact productively and resolve conflict nonviolently.
When conflict is on the rise, when many societies’ institutions are under threat, and political actors seem prone to abandon the rules if it helps them win, the Olympics are a timely reminder that healthy competition is rooted in cooperation. As the competition concludes and everyone goes home with their medals, we should not overlook this deeper lesson of the Games.
News and updates
We learned this week that "The Power of Us" was selected as this year's winner of “The Center for the Science of Moral Understanding's Social Impact Award” for helping to make sense of (and address) modern societal divides.
Thanks to everyone who helped make this award a possibility!
Last week Dominic spoke to Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman on the Sacred Science Podcast about how our social identities are influenced by others, and the impact of peer pressure.
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