Winter and summer games heat up old rivalries not only between specific athletes, but also between countries.  Countries throw down their gauntlets to challenge for supremacy in any given sport.  Winning is perceived as a show of strength; being atop the Olympic medal count means even more to most people.

What is it about sports that attract so much attention from people even in countries that typically have no chance to win a medal?  While local teams give their sports fans something to rally around; an Olympic team gives the entire country a rallying point.  Every two years, millions of people worldwide watch their representatives battle for sport supremacy.   In actuality, it isn’t just about the sports at all. 

Possible Financial Gains are Prominent for Businesses

Most countries support their teams financially, either governmentally or through donations made to the team by the countries’ population.  In the more developed countries, sponsors contribute huge amounts of money to the nations’ teams.

 Sports as a whole are one of the biggest businesses in the world.[2]  Outside of movie and television; athletes represent a large portion of advertisers’ product endorsements.  Well known Olympians are used as often as well-known professional athletes.[2]  The advertisers in turn, buy the time slots for television programming and sponsoring of the Olympics.  Sponsors advertise through contributions of clothing and equipment for the nations’ teams.  However, should an athlete win a medal, especially a gold medal; the sponsors can reap monetary rewards that far outweigh the cost. Understandably, in countries that are more challenged economically, athletes contend with limited training dollars.  Still, it doesn’t deter those countries from entering the games.  Thus, financial gains are not the only attraction of the Olympics. 

Politics Play a Role

No one likes to believe that a sporting event that is thought to be rich in its history of goodwill is overshadowed at times by thinly veiled politics of the competing countries.  The Olympics have been used to express political views overtly by boycotting the games; refusal to compete against a specific nation; and in the extreme, as a target for terrorist attacks, such as the 1972 Munich Games.

It is difficult to ignore the controversies that are widely reported once the games start.  As technology has progressed; it has become much more prominent in media reporting.   The viewer gets a daily dose of which countries are rivals, which countries feel slighted or judged unfairly, and which athletes are bickering.   Fortunately, the political aspect of the Olympics is not why the average person watches the games. 

The Average Sports Fan Keeps Track of Olympic Medal Count- photo by Ken LundCredit: photo by Ken Lund

Most Important Reason is Sports Make People Feel Something

Sports bring people together.  Sports fans identify with their teams and when the team is Team USA, or Team Canada, or Team Russia; it is the same phenomenon as supporting a local professional or college team.  Identifying with a team, gives a kind of social support network that can provide a buffer from other emotions such as loneliness or depression.  It can give the fan a sense of belonging.[3]

 Sports teams seem to gauge the self-esteem of its fans.  This phenomenon is called Basking in Reflected Glory (BIRGing) and explains people will symbolically associate themselves with others, such as a sports team or in this case, their nation’s Olympic team, in order that their successes rub off.[2]  This in turn increases their self-esteem.   By watching the teams and wearing their team uniforms, the teams’ successes become the fans’ successes thus increasing self-esteem further.  Studies show that when a team is winning, the fans are more likely to use first-person in describing the action (e.g. we won another gold) thereby, linking themselves to the victory.  When a team loses, the fan often copes by blaming it on others, such as umpires, or judges, rather than the team, and in this way, keeps their self-esteem intact. [3]

Many fans watch sports simply for the joy of excellence displayed by the athletes’ abilities.   People marvel over the physical and strategic intricacies of the sporting events and the athletes’ prowess at the games.   It is at times, awe inspiring to watch the level of performance in these sports; even more so for the fans who have actually engaged in a lower level of recreational or competition in those sporting events and perhaps find a higher level of appreciation.

Overall, watching sports can be a shared experience.  Workers talk around the water coolers about the underdog who won; or reminisce about the personal struggles of a featured athlete.  Humans have a huge capacity of compassion for the struggles of athletes whether from their own country or another; and good will seems to shine in most fans.  Regardless, an individual’s success reflects the nation’s team success and in turn reflects the nation’s people’s success.

Sports are unpredictable.  Anything can happen.   And that is why people tune in to the Olympics—television, online, in person.  People watch and count.


The copyright of the article Why the Olympic Medal Count is so Important is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.