Following months of eager anticipation and frenzied hype, the 2012 Olympic Games started with a predictable but enormous bang. Names like Franklin and Lochte, that were largely unknown just months ago, have morphed into household terms. We watch the games with panting breaths and awe-inspired minds, floored with utter pride for our country.
Why? For most people, the last time they watched a swim meet was in high school. As for gymnastics? Unless you participated in the sport as a child or have a child yourself, chances are, you aren’t frequenting gymnasiums on a regular basis. Track and field events hardly draw much of a crowd either.
This is not to say Americans aren’t avid sports fans. If anything, we are a die-hard bunch; a dedicated mass of peristant supporters rooting for our favorite teams. But, that’s just it. We like teams. Group sports. Football in the fall, basketball in the spring, baseball in the summer. And this support extends so much further than just the results of a season; following a particular team embodies all that comes with it, including the tailgating parties, the merchandise, and following the player’s personal lives. Rooting for a team is easy. We know the rivals and the right colors to wear.
The Olympic Games extract a different kind of audience, one that may be entirely unfamiliar with a particular athlete’s background, college team, and performance stats. Nevertheless, every season, the Olympic Games draw record-breaking numbers in terms of its viewers. In response, marketing campaigns splash the fresh-faced athletes on commercials, print ads, even cereal boxes. Before winning a medal, an athlete may already have several endorsers willing to support his/her event.
What’s the draw? Why do we find these games so intriguing, and, moreover, why do we admire these relatively unknown athletes? From a strictly evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense we enjoy the Olympics, in the same way we enjoy other high-pressure competition (rivalry games, beauty pageants, and even the vast realm of reality television). After all, the formula to win is very similar amongst these competitions: hard work, the cliched “blood, sweat, and tears,” mantra, and performing feats unimaginable and unattainable for most of the human population. The Olympics feature the pinnacle of fitness compete, and despite our talent and persistence, most of us will never reach that extreme caliber. As humans, we seem inclined to want to witness history in the making, and undoubtedly, the Olympics feed straight into that desire. Watching individual events that do not generate much attention on their own (swimming, gymnastics) may even be more enticing for this very reason. We tend to seek out novel ideas and experiences, and when we do, we are not as desensitized or cynical about them. For instance, when a devout football fan watches a game, it often takes a magnificent play to impress him. However, chances are, if he just watches one gymanstic competition, he will be floored, without needing to know all the background stats or story. Why? Because knowing less about a particular event/activity/idea naturally makes you more curious, especially when it has generated extreme media attention.
Likewise, down to its legendary torch and infamous gold, silver, and bronze medals, the Olympics strongly uphold the values of tradition. In a society that is constantly rocked by athletic scandals and political changes, we find this guaranteed formula refreshing. In recent years, professional sports have exhibited stronger sense of subjection and controversy; fans frequently disagree about the best players or whether the team should have recruited a particular athlete. But because the Olympics require a rigid set of trials, this opinionated disparity is rarely if ever seen. The audience realizes these athletes must successfully pass several rounds of competitions just to have the opportunity to perform. Furthermore, their likelihood depends on raw data and mathematical computations, rather than the opinion of a particular recruit or coach.
And finally, the Olympics embody such a worldwide allur due to their nature of being a worldwide spectacle. To be frank, we have scant evidence of positive global unity. Obvious examples of bringing a nation together include wars and natural disasters, neither of which are particularly cheery. The Olympics, on the other hand, bring both the world together in addition to strenghtening internal pride within each country. This camaraderie abides to our basic needs of human interaction and social desirability. Being aware and updated with the current news keeps you “in the know” with your peers and with your country. Similar to watching the Academy Awards or Superbowl, not seeing the Olympics almost makes you an outcast, thus increasing your chances of alienation and social inferiority. Besides, these games hold the potential to boost your overall mood, spark that motivation to go out and make big things happen, and increase your patriotic pride!