This is a part of ThinkProgress’s #Rio2016 coverage. To read other articles about the 2016 Games, click here.
“U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”
The American team isn’t even on screen yet, and already, people in this downtown Washington, D.C. sportsbar are chanting. Cheap polyester flags, the type peddled at Fourth of July and Memorial Day parades, are strewn strategically over the tables. The bar is buzzing with chatter, but everyone has at least one eye on the massive projection screens adorning three of the four walls, streaming the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The first chant, spurred by a commentator’s passing mention of the U.S. team, sputters quickly. When Team USA appears, however, it starts up again. It’s louder and stronger. “Fuck yeah, I’m so excited!” someone squeals, pointing at the gymnastics team. The polyester flags come into play, fluttering in concert with Michael Phelps, helming the American flag in Rio.
When the camera, reluctantly, moves on to other nations, some people in the bar stay to watch. Several others, however, close out their tabs, pocket their flags, and move on. The part of the show they were interested in is over.
Patriotism is an integral part of the Olympic Games. In fact, it was during the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid that the “U-S-A!” chant became a hallmark refrain.
For two weeks every two years, a certain brand of overt national pride and American exceptionalism, normally a sentiment that has been laid claim to by the right, becomes near-universal. Many Americans obsess over sports they don’t normally follow and grow attached to athletes whose names they learned just a few days before. Medal counts against geopolitical rallies are tallied up and hyped by newscasters and internet search engines.
It’s not an exceptional American behavior: All over the world, nations rally to their Olympic team, celebrating when they win, consoling (and sometimes vociferously complaining) when they lose.
But what exactly is it about the Olympics that brings out this patriotic fervor?
The answer lies deep within our psychology, in a natural predisposition that affects every aspect of our lives — from whom we team up with in gym class to what makes us rally in support of our presidential candidates.
“National sentiments have roots in very, I’ll use the word primitive, very basic kind of needs for group loyalty,” Daniel Druckman, a political psychologist at George Mason University, told ThinkProgress, describing a developmental model for the roots of nationalism. “Group loyalty starts with the nurturing unit as the child identifies with his or her parents. Those identifications becomes the foundation for developing more complex sentiments toward other, larger groups, including nations.”
Human beings are social animals. We’re driven to emotionally attach, and as we develop those emotions transfer to increasingly complex and abstract groups — from parents to friends, from friends to communities, from communities to nations. Another factor driving these strong attachments to even abstract, nebulous groups is that our brains have evolved to reward group behavior.
“The long story is that humans evolved in small groups,” Jay Van Bavel, an Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at New York University, who uses neuroscience to study group dynamics, said. “We’re not very strong creatures. There’s lots of other animals — lions or tigers or gorillas — that for their size are much stronger, or they have sharp teeth or claws, or can run much faster than humans. So what really sets humans apart is our capacity towards cooperation and working together in groups and communicating with one another to achieve our goals.”
Functionally, this means that we’re naturally predisposed towards forming what psychologists term “ingroups” and “outgroups.” Ingroups are the people we attach to, and outgroups are the people we define ourselves against. To put it simply, we are constantly dividing our social world into two categories: friend or foe.
“We’re not very strong creatures. There’s lots of other animals — lions or tigers or gorillas — that for their size are much stronger, or they have sharp teeth or claws, or can run much faster than humans.”
Social categorizations such as these have a huge influence on our emotions and behavior. They explain why sports fans, for example, paint their chests and wear blocks of cheese on their heads, and why Democrats and Republicans can read the same news and come away with wildly different interpretations. They also help explain why political rhetoric appealing to ethno-nationalism can be virulently enticing; there are two different ways that people can manifest these group dynamics: One is love for the ingroup. The other is hate towards the outgroup.
These “us versus them” instincts can be helpful — say in a game of basketball — but when they’re defined along certain lines, they also underlie many of our most stubborn prejudices, like racism, classism, and xenophobia.
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) August 9, 2016
Researchers have shown that these group memberships change the way we think to a neural level. We’re more empathetic to people in our groups, and we’re more likely to help out the group even if it costs us something personally. We also pay more attention to the faces of people in our ingroup, and show more activation in parts of the brain associated with face perception.
We also have a tendency to discriminate against people in the outgroup, to a level that can almost seem pathological. Research on Red Sox and Yankees fans examining the antipathy we can hold towards outsiders, for instance, showed that areas of the brain linked to pleasure lit up when the person watched a rival team lose. Another study of soccer fans showed that these pleasure centers also lit up when subjects watched a fan of a rival team get painfully shocked. Notably, sports are one of the few places where this overt antipathy is culturally acceptable; we might experience this innate schadenfreude in other areas of our life, but generally, cultural politeness demands that we suppress it.
Patriotism is an extension of this tendency toward identifying with social groups. Though the nation is as a whole an abstract concept, it’s been drilled into us through culture and centuries of political rhetoric. It surges in times of turmoil and conflict, such as after 9/11. There are two key ways this instinct can manifest, however: patriotism and nationalism.
“Patriotism is love for our country or shared affinity for being Americans, without dislike for others. We don’t need enemies to be patriotic,” said Druckman. “Nationalism, on the other hand, depends on enemies, and is the combination of ‘I love my country’ and ‘I have disdain for Russians’ [for example].”
A t any one time, we’re juggling multiple identities and multiple groupings. Some of them are static, such as skin color, while others shift, such as pick-up basketball teams. Some are stacked on each other, such as religion and nationality. Researchers have shown that which of these groupings wins out is context dependent: At a Black Lives Matter protest, for instance, race might be the dominant identifier. During a bitterly divided election, political ideology might win out. The Olympics make us patriotic because they bring shared a national identity to the forefront.
“What happens when we’re in group situations is that those types of things often trigger in us an identity. So, people might not feel a strong national identity until the Olympics rolls around,” said Van Bavel.
The effect of social groups is so powerful and easy to fall into that Van Bavel has shown that we attune to new groups almost immediately, regardless of logic. In some of his lab’s experiments, “we basically just flip a coin and we tell them you’re part of a group, like the lions or the tigers. And, then we show them pictures of their ingroup versus their outgroup.”
Within minutes, “people say they identify more with their group, they have better memory for faces of people who are part of their group, they have different brain activation for the ingroup. They start to show very early parts of the brain, involved in face perception and evaluation, responding much more strongly to ingroup members than outgroup members.”
And, critically, Van Bavel’s research shows that these novel groupings are strong enough to override innate racial biases — such as a well-documented tendency we have to pay more attention to the faces of people of our own race.
Once grouped, people start to see the group as an extension of themselves. This also helps explain why we care so much that our athletes win: when they do, some of their joy reflects back to us.
“This is called basking in reflected glory,” said Van Bavel. “So even though you didn’t help win the game, you will help feel like you get some reflected glory, and you’ll kind of bask in the success as a team.”
While the mechanisms behind patriotism are part of everyday psychology, the Olympics are still a singular event for the way that they capitalize on that patriotism. They were designed that way.
I n the ancient games, participants celebrated in service of the gods and in search of personal glory. There was no such thing as a medal competition between Athens and Sparta. When they were revived at the end of the 19th century, however, their modern-day founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, put nations at the center of the competition.
“[Coubertin] was a guy who said, hey, it’s the late 1800s, and the world’s kind of falling apart. People are leaving the countryside to live in cities, they’re migrating, there’s industrialization, religion is a little bit on the wane, we need things that will hold and draw people together,” Orin Starn, a professor of anthropology and history at Duke University, told ThinkProgress.
“He liked this idea of nations and nationalism, our feeling that we’re American or French or Russian or Chinese. He used that feeling as a kind of social glue that we need in a world that’s become more atomized and more fragmented.”
“This whole idea of patriotism, it’s not peripheral to the Olympics. It’s at the core of what Coubertin wanted.”
The contemporary games have taken this concept and run with it. The coverage shown in the U.S. — and in many countries worldwide — is heavily biased towards our own athletes. Minor events without popular American athletes are shown in the middle of the day, or not at all. In 2012, Deadspin noted that NBC’s coverage of gymnastics, a marquee event, was so biased it preferenced shots of U.S. coaches and athletes standing on the sidelines over coverage of Russian and Chinese routines. This year, NBC even tried to get the organizers to shift around the Portuguese alphabet and send the American athletes further back in the queue for the Opening Ceremonies, to keep Americans watching longer.
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) August 9, 2016
NBC has turned the Olympics into a major television event, wringing every drop of drama out of sports that normally don’t get much attention at all. Instead of straight coverage about goals and points and athletic technicalities, the games constantly provide narrative backstories for the athletes.
“It’s been packaged as a television, soap-opera- cum-athletic- event,” said Starn. “In reality, what does any of us care about the triple jump or the women’s shot put or even who wins the marathon or 100-meter dash? We don’t follow any of these sports. It’s only during these four years that anybody pays attention to everything from figure skating to track and field.”
But the other way the Olympics hook us is by pandering to our patriotism.
“These athletic events are also presented and have been packaged as spectacles of nationalism. You turn in to watch, and not to watch but to root for the USA and not just the USA but that swimmer, you know, who swims in the 50-meter backstroke who’s from the U.S.” said Starn.
“The Olympics are a kind of like a patriotism machine.”
The Summer Olympics, staged every four years, always land during an election season in the United States (in 1980, the president of the International Olympic Committee, Lord Killanin, huffed that the U.S. should just change its Constitution so election-year politics would stop getting in the way of the games). This year, amidst a rise of ethno-nationalism throughout the west which, in America, is personified by Donald Trump, overt patriotism has tended more often than not to slide into its ugly nationalist underbelly: ingroup and outgroup lines drawn not at borders or dreams, but along divisions of race and religion.
Outside the Olympics, it’s at Trump rallies where you’re most likely to hear “U-S-A!” chanted — often as protesting Muslims and people of color are dragged out by security.
In past times of crisis, the Olympics have played different roles. In 1968, when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised the Black Power salute during the Mexico City games, they became a stage to exhibit internal strife.
The 1984 Los Angeles games, meanwhile, “were like a major kind of patriotic American red-white-and-blue love fest,” said Starn, despite the discord over Reagan’s policies and intervention in South America.
“All of the athletes were wrapping themselves in the flag and doing victory laps, and there was no mention or reference at all of world tensions or problems.”
This year, in a petri dish of conflict, the United States is fielding its most diverse team ever, all cloaked in star-spangled uniforms. What happens — do the Olympics actually act as the unifying force we’re told they should be?
“The question is whether that shared or common support serves to reduce the political tensions that we are experiencing,” said Druckman. While some of the positive feelings stemming from the Olympics might transfer over to similar domains — say, other sports rivalries, like that between the Red Sox and the Yankees — they are less likely to extend to other domains, like domestic politics. These different arenas will probably stay apart, their identities and emotions compartmentalized, he says.
“The euphoria, if in fact there is euphoria based on the Olympics, is not likely to reduce the polarization that we’re experiencing in national politics, or to do so only for a brief period of time.”
As soon as the Olympic torch goes out, we lose the easy way to identify ourselves against an other. We’ll start fighting again (if it stops at all, that is) over exactly who the patriots really are: When we say America, do we mean just people who look like us? How do we draw the ingroup and outgroup lines?
“[The Olympics] will help people rally around their common identity as an identity,” said Van Bavel. “So it will help camaraderie, maybe people will stop talking about politics and start talking about sports, and maybe what they share in common with their neighbors. In the short term, it can reduce and alleviate intergroup conflicts or racial conflict, at least for people who are following the Olympics and getting more into it. But it’s not a cure-all.”
“What happens is the moment the Olympics are over, that shared national identity is a lot less salient to people. It’s not on their mind, and the race or political conflict within the country becomes more salient again, and that starts to drive the anger again,” said Van Bavel.
In addition to reinforcing national identities, however, the Olympics are meant to emphasize, through friendly competition, shared humanity around the globe.
The games are a tricky balancing act, one that speaks to the same dilemma America finds itself in right now: How do you promote patriotism, love of one’s country, without having it metastasize into nationalism — love of one’s country combined with hatred of all other countries?
It’s a struggle that’s been there from the beginning, according to Starn. Even while hoping that nationalism would be the glue his fragmented world needed, Coubertin “wanted people to feel proud of their countries, but to also feel at the same time a sort of companionship with other human beings.”
“There’s this kind of tension between universal — what we share — and then what divides.”