What do the Olympics really reveal about us?


Pic c/o Telegraph.co.uk

I thought – and I can blame no other than the lovely Matthew D'Ancona for encouraging me – that maybe now would be a good time to add to that ever popular Op-Ed trope which blossoms around the time of global sporting events: what does this thing – this (oh yes) social object – that we're all flocking around (in this case the 2012 Olympics) tell us about ourselves? What hidden truths does it reveal about who and how we are?

A lovely piece in yesterday's Telegraph describes how the interesting opening ceremony reveals a lot about us Brits as a nation (referencing surprisingly the Britishness book that Matt edited and I contributed to) and what we value about our world and our cultural inheritance (which is neither the Beefeater and Bearskin stuff of the tourist trail nor the cycling spinsters and warm beer of former PM John Major's sentimental memory). I've read a number of foreign news reports on journalist's responses to the 'bonkers' opening ceremony (as well as the social media feeds various) and am interested to hear what you made of this (particularly if you hail from outside the UK).

But if I'm honest, I'm really rather less interested in what the whole 5-ring circus tells us about the parochial issue of Britishness but – as you'd imagine – rather more interested in some simple truths about how all behaviour is shaped.

First, there's what you might call the "Vonnegut syndrome": famously, in a late interview, author and hero of many in 1970s and 80s counter culture, Kurt Vonnegut advised:

Form a little society of your own. And, hang out with them. Get a gang

Gangs, tribes, teams – all of these are good, safe and rewarding contexts for us social creatures to live in.

And let's be honest, cheering on for "our team" seems more important than the sport (the thing) itself (unless that sport actually has some other features worth engaging with). Isn't this what the flag waving is really all about? Fans talk about "us" and "we"…as if they were athletes themsleves…

Effectively, the sport itself reveals itself as a social object (despite the efforts and skills of the individual athletes)…as something to interact with other people around.

As Hugh puts it:

The Social Object, in a nutshell, is the rea­son two peo­ple are tal­king to each other, as oppo­sed to tal­king to some­body else. Human beings are social ani­mals. We like to socia­lize. But if think about it, there needs to be a rea­son for it to hap­pen in the first place. That rea­son, that “node” in the social net­work, is what we call the Social Object.

Sporting events like the Olympics provide us with a means to gather together – as the Ancient Greeks did – and interact with each other, both those inside our group and those in other groups in safe but nonetheless thrilling ways (some studies suggest that sportsfans' experiences are underpinned by huge swings in testosterone levels, depending on whether their team is winning or losing). 

Second, it's clear that the way that engagement and excitement about the games has built over time – or "cascaded" through the population – through social means, rather than one based on the appeal of the thing itself. Just a few weeks ago, most of the population of London were sceptical; now – post-Boyle – and following the excitement of those around us, it's hard not to feel excited, too. Even grumpy old me.

Everyone seems to be talking about it – at the office, on the bus, on TV, in the pub. Everyone, everywhere is talking Olympics. Different events bring different talking points and different stories to tell to others (from Michael Phelps' extraordinary achievements in the pool to the disappointment of the GB Judo team).  Even the most ardent non sportsfan has something to say about things like these.

That's why the architecture of the venues (and their approaches) is like it is – encouraging intuitive and non-verbal interaction and allowing us to see what others feel, too. Again the Greeks understood this all too well.

Again, the transmission of this excitement is not primarily driven by the events themselves but rather by social means. As Paul Ormerod points out in his latest book, it's genuinely hard for modern humans not to pick up ideas, feelings and behaviour from the many souls with whom we share our (undeniably) social worlds (networks) with.

It's what we do.