The Psychology of Olympic Unity


The Olympic games allow us to escape from the harsh realities of the real world and this year they could not have started at a better time. To look around it seems our country is more divided then ever. The battle between Democrats and Republicans, not to mention the divides within each party, has taken on a particularly playground feel.  Racial fissures within our country have once again boiled to the surface and heated discussion can be sparked by the mere mention of immigration or the refugee crisis.


However, once every four years the majority of Americans get a welcomed boost of unity.  With the start of the summer Olympic games patriotism spikes and we temporarily have a common goal within our borders.  But, why?

Why can something as simple as sport unite us as a country, even if it is temporary?

Patriotic Symbolism

During the Olympics we are constantly exposed to images and symbols related to American patriotism.  The Stars and Stripes are on every jersey, TV broadcast, and product across the country.  Chants of “USA” and cheers abound with each American medal won.


Imagery has been used as a powerful builder of national identity for centuries.  From an early age we are taught to feel positively about the American flag as the primary symbol of our country.  From the pledge of allegiance in grade school to the national anthem at sporting events, our brains are trained to give us chills at the imagery.  When we see these emblems of country positive emotions from our childhood are triggered and we temporarily share one identity: American.

Heartfelt Stories of Perseverance

NBC has done a great job over the years of packaging the stories of the athletes to draw us deeper into our love for the Olympic games.  From the story of a Philly boy overcoming his parents divorce and drug and alcohol abuse to become the most decorated Olympian of all time to the story of a young woman who overcame temporary foster placement to be adopted by her grandparents and become the most successful gymnast in American history.

These stories go deeper then simply inspiring us, they touch on commonalities in our own story.  Universal themes of overcoming hardship remind us that we too can reach for our dreams.  If they can do it, so can I.  These stories also trigger two of the most psychologically powerful words, “me too.”


When these inspirational stories intersect our own experiences we have a “Me Too” moment of connection with that athlete and take their performance personally.  For example, NBC aired a touching tribute to Dana Vollmer and the birth of her child.  After she gave birth she went back to her intense training schedule to once again make the US Olympic team.  Any mom that has given birth and returned to the demands of life can appreciate the work it took for Dana to push through.

The Rivalries

Common “enemies” can go a long way to inspiring unity within a people group.  From ancient times we are psychologically wired to work together with those around us to share resources and prevent other groups from infringing on those resources.


The Olympic games combine the patriotism of national identity with the joy and passion of competing against other national identities that often challenge our own.  Who doesn’t love beating Russia in gymnastics or China in basically anything?  Rivalries in the Olympic games often reflect sociopolitical stresses in the real world.  The Cold War brought about a time of great tension for the USA and Russia, but also created some of the best moments in Olympic history as the sport rivalries came to a head during the games.  Who remembers the Miracle on Ice?

Heart of the Games

In ancient times, the very heart of the Olympic Games brought unity.  All wars within Greece were required to stop and city-states across the land would send their best champions to represent all of their citizens in what was consider the greatest test of honor of the era.  A victor not only brought honor to themselves or their family, but to their home and state.  The city-states would celebrate together with their champions.  A champion’s victory was everyone’s victory.


Team USA belongs to all of us. This year a black, hijab wearing, Muslim women represented the USA not only in fencing, but also on the very front row as Team USA marched in during the Parade of Nations.  Gabby Douglas’ 2012 all around gold medal in gymnastics is a victory that is celebrated by all of us.  Pierre de Coubertin was the driving force of the modern revival of the Olympic Games.  He left us with a quote that summarizes the unity of the Olympics well, “The Olympic Spirit is neither the property of one race nor of one age.”  The olympics belong to all of us, not just the elite, but all Americans.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here