Do Olympics spur patriotism, xenophobia or civic engagement?

I haven’t seen any surveys that show whether patriotism rises during periods of Olympics although people anticipate this to be the case (at least in the UK). Even my daughter wants to know for every competition (*who are the Americans?*). I myself am a bit skeptical of the survey numbers during the games since it requires that those of us bleary-eyed from late night Olympics watching are alert enough to answer the surveys. Richard Posner, a man with whom I rarely agree, writes: “When a sport or other game is played all over the world (chess for example, or soccer), it is natural that there should be international competition. The oddity of the Olympics is that they are presented as athletic competitions between nations, rather than between teams each of which presumably would have a permanent residence in one nation yet might recruit team members from other nations as well. Nations in the grip of nationalist emotion or wanting to advertise their power to the world (nations such as Hitler’s Germany, which made the 1936 summer Olympics, held in Berlin, a major propaganda event; East Germany and other communist countries; and now China) invest heavily in training their Olympic athletes. China is estimated to have spent as much as half a billion dollars to train their athletes for the Olympic games now underway in Beijing. The heavy investments that nations that regard Olympic competition as a propaganda opportunity in turn spur other nations to invest heavily in training their own Olympic athletes. The nationalistic fervor and great-power aspirations that Olympic competition stimulates seem to me a negative externality….”

But does this rise in patriotism, assuming it exists, spur more xenophobia (distrust of outsiders)? Very similar to the assumption that in-group bonding and trust must come at the expense of out-group increased distrust. So many citizens and scholars assume some zero-sum relationship where bonding must be offset by less bridging. While we haven’t done work on the Olympics, our general research of diversity and social capital shows that bonding and bridging are mildly positively related, not negatively related. In other words, those who trust or identify with Americans more doesn’t necessarily entail a distrust or dislike of “outsiders”.

Along these lines, I’ve been moved by images of pan-ethnic unity during the game (e.g., the Gerogian and the Russian pistol shooters who exchanged kisses after a match).

Some of the images are like the optical illusion of the outline of two faces and a vase. For example, the general embracing of the moving story of 21-year old first-time Olympic-gold US wrestler Henry Cejudo, the son of illegal immigrants who slept on the floor growing up and was proud enough to wrap himself in the US flag upon his victory; but even on this “feel good” story, there are rants of American nativists who want him deported). Nothing makes one more proud of that inclusive American spirit. (cue sarcastic music)

In the Michael Phelps relay team that had Cullen Jones, the African-American relay swimmer , or Raj Bhavsar (the Gujarati member of the surprisingly good American gymnastics team), is one impressed by the diversity, or by how largely white these teams are?

And are we more inclined during the Olympic games to feel our competitive edge on hyperdrive or reach out through common acts of kindness to help others? Let’s hope the latter.

And in an interesting side note, the Washington Post reports that on a study that found bronze medalists were happier with their performance than silver medalists. A study found that “The silver medalists couldn’t get the gold medalists out of their heads, whereas the bronze medalists compared themselves with athletes who didn’t win anything.” Silver medalists and those finishing fifth were, on average, equally happy. Brings to mind Dan Gilbert’s talk on happiness.

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