We love to watch the Olympics for the stunning athletic feats, drama, sense of national pride, and, of course, the hot bodies in skimpy suits. But there's something much bigger going on that we can't ignore: The Olympics break down cultural divides in poignant ways that melt us... especially at a time when the world's problems can seem hopeless.
"The Olympic competitions are characterized by tremendous esprit de corps among the athletes, and the goodwill across cultural boundaries. How is it that the athletes of countries that hold great animosity toward one another can transcend it and exhibit a high level of camaraderie with representatives of all countries?" muses Dr. Virginia Brabender, a professor in the Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania.
And culture starts with the games' very foundation. Unlike some professional sports in which manifestations of civility are minimal — for example, in professional baseball, players do not shake hands at the end of a competition — in the Olympics, signs of amity are present everywhere. "The opening ceremony emphasizes the continuity of the games since ancient times, and provides tribute not to victory but the human spirit. The five interlocking rings speak to fact that our quest to strive for excellence is a shared quest. The various norms of the game support amity. For example, in the swim competitions, swimmers congratulate the victors swimming adjacently to them. All in all the culture of the Olympics is ingrained in its history of unity," Brabender says.
The athletes spend a great deal of time with one another and over the period of a month, get to know one another. They live together (well, not all), eat together, and work out together in the Olympic gym. "To view athletes from other teams as the enemy, some distance is necessary. These athletes learn that the members of other teams are much like themselves. This situation is very different from that of professional athletes whose primary involvement during a series of games is with members of their own team," says Dr. Brabender. Athletes want to see the best athlete win.
The Olympic athletes come from all over the world, and are the absolute best at their spot. But, "Even at this high level where the risks couldn’t be any bigger, we see our athletes show great sportsmanship," says Dr. A.J. Marsden, a former U.S. Army surgical nurse who now serves as an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. "For example, the other day during women’s weightlifting, Sopita Tanasan of Thailand took the gold medal. The other competitors, so impressed by her lift, came by to congratulate her. Similarly, we often see the swimmers lean across the ropes to congratulate the winner of the race, especially when they break world records. Obviously, they are competitive, but they are also respectful of their fellow athletes’ abilities. This demonstration of showmanship inspires us to do the same."
The Olympics opens our eyes to cultural differences — and more importantly, our similarities. "The Egyptian women’s beach volleyball team played wearing a hijab, long sleeves, and leggings. This was a drastic contrast to their German opponents, who wear a traditional bikini. Although very different in appearance, their love for the game brought them together," says Marsden.
Of course, players were still respectful of each other and played a fair game. Images like these open our eyes to our differences, engage us in conversation, and ultimately make us realize how similar we really are.
As technology improves, we have more opportunities to capture moments of sportsmanship in these Olympics, such as this selfie of North Korean and South Korean gymnasts. "In no other event would a North Korean have the opportunity to get to know a South Korean, especially given the hostile and often explosive nature of their country’s past," says Dr Marsden.
"[Just] search for #sportsmanship on Twitter — you’ll see many examples of Olympic athletes demonstrating their respect for one another," Marsden says.
In addition to the athletes breaking down cultural divides, the fans play their part as well. "Quite often when an athlete pulls of an impressive performance, we hear fans cheering loudly for the athlete, even if she or he does not represent their country," says Dr. Marsden. At home, you catch yourself cheering for that athlete to break the world record, even if that athlete is from Canada, Italy, or China. We all gasp when an athlete has an injury, no matter where he or she hails from.
"For example, these Olympics we saw the French gymnast, Samir Ait Said, break his leg during his vault landing. After that traumatic break, Paul George, a basketball player for the U.S.A. in these Olympics, tweeted his support for Said. If you visit Said’s Twitter account, you will see tweet after tweet supporting him and wishing him a quick recovering. And not all those tweets are from the French — he is receiving well wishes from people all over the globe," says Dr. Marsden.
Once again showing that we often have more in common than we think.
Finally, the Olympics are also challenging gender norms and breaking down gender stereotypes. "This year, the U.S.A. sent more female than male athletes to the Olympics and the most female athletes of any other country competing. The traditional [idea that spots are masculine] is fading fast. Furthermore, more and more women are competing in male-dominated sports, such as weightlifting and Judo," says Marsden.
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