Beyond Heroes and Villains

Investigating the nature of good guys and bad guys in fiction and real life

Are Olympic Athletes Heroes?

Does going for the gold make a sports figure a hero?

Does beating another athlete to the end make one a hero?
http://abcnews.go.com/Sports/slideshow/best-photos-summer-olympics-16896529

Are Olympic athletes heroes? That may depend on whom you ask. People on Twitter have shared a lot of thoughts on this topic, like these:

@kristenmchugh22: No. They're inspirational, but what they do doesn't require self-sacrifice, empathy, or a higher purpose than themselves.
@hookmoney: It's really hard to call them heroes right now, when a group of scientists just put a robot on Mars
@cai_train: I can't get over Misty May-Treanor & Kerri Walsh Jennings. #TeamUSA You two are amazing! #heroes #Olympics
@DeeeVaaa: In spite of...idiots, the rest of America is extremely proud of all our #Olympics athletes. #TeamUSA Go, U remarkable heroes.
@art_nerveux: To whom?
@willb473: if they live a clean life and spend time in youth/community programs because they actually WANT to, they can inspire a lot.
@bennuwright: When they start saving lives? When they make sacrifices to help other people? Is this a trick question? "Hero" already has a definition. It has no connection to sports. A lot of people have tried to lower the bar and blend..."hero" into being conveniently synonymous with "role model", "star" and "celebrity", but that just cheapens it.
@Jake_Nelson_UK: I love the Olympians, but a real hero is someone who risks life to save someone.
@DMBIII: I would say athletics don't make an individual a hero its just sometimes a talent a hero may have.
@GoldenHalo7: when they inspire love and support for their homeland and inspire others to be the best they can be.
@Eenfidel: Simply being the best does not make you a hero.
@Aprange15: Watching the series "The War"on PBS. No offense to any Olympic athletes but the men/women on that show are the true heroes.
@JenniferJergens: Olympic athletes are "true heroes" now? I just threw up. Such a disgrace to the ACTUAL heroes.. Like the ones serving our country?
@robinhardwick: Tired of hearing Olympic athletes referred to as heroes. Having the privilege to have a private coach since childhood does not a hero make.
@northernn_belle: So you're gonna call me unAmerican because I'm proud of our Olympic athletes. OH BUT "they aren't real heroes". Makes perfect sense. #BLOCK
@JesseTheAce: I personally consider anyone who inspires somebody else (even one person) to achieve things or gives the hope they need to succeed at a certain is a hero, so yes I personally have no doubt that Olympic atheletes or even atheletes in general can certainly be heroes! I know I consider quite a few atheletes, heroes of mine.

Despite the ones who argue against deeming these athletes heroic, you'll find no shortage of people talking about "Olympic heroes." Some even go as far as to compare these outstanding performers to superheroes:

@Shyman33: I love the way Olympic Super Heroes even get a cape thrown to them from the crowd.. After winning Gold
@TylerTheSexGod: Olympic athletes are real life super heroes.
@FaireduSurf: We need to teach all olympic gymnists to become superheroes... NOW!
@Philjimeneznyc: Olympic gymnasts make me believe in super-heroes. Really short super-heroes.
@alexslices: "Olympic athletes are just like the rest of us" um no they're not! They're pretty much super heroes!

Athletes' motivations may figure into the debate. Why are they competing? When they go for the gold, are they doing it for themselves or for others? Are their actions selfish or selfless? A relationship exists between athletes and their supporters in that the fans will support favorite athletes and teams strongly and devotedly[i] while Olympic athletes, in turn, consider fans an important part of their social support, influencing their confidence and performance.[ii] Some really are doing it "for the folks back home."

On the one hand, this may be a matter of semantics, in which the word "heroes" includes them if we say it includes them and doesn't if we say it doesn't. People decide what words mean, right? True enough, but there's more to it than that. Countless people worldwide do indeed consider Olympic athletes, these amazing individuals who push themselves throughout their lives so they might reach the pinnacle of their fields, to be genuinely heroic and worthy of admiration.

Saying Olympic athletes either are or aren't heroes is not simply a word game. Beyond any debate over word meanings, the root of the debate lies in the basic concept of heroism itself, and not everyone agrees on whether the concept should apply. Many consider these athletes to be undeniably heroic while many others do not. With sacrifices great and many, each Olympic competitor perseveres through a long series of challenges that leave behind wave after wave of others who dream of one day wearing the gold. Genetic gifts created potential that nevertheless require persistence, determination, and learned skills to carry them forward into the games for the mere chance to accomplish what billions consider to be the most challenging, most prestigious athletic achievements on Earth.

Delving into that underlying concept of heroism, it's interesting to contemplate how well the Olympic athlete fits into the hero archetype. What would Carl Jung and Joseph Campbel have to say about the Olympic hero's journey? For now, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter: When is a sports figure also a hero? Must a hero show every heroic quality? Please share your thoughts as comments here and chat with me (@Superherologist) on Twitter.

 

Endnotes

[i] Wann, D. L., Melnick, M. J., Russell, G. W., & Pease, D. G. (2001). Sports fans: The psychology and social impact of spectators. New York: Routledge Press.

[ii] Wann, D. L. (2012). The Head and Shoulders Psychology of Success Project: An examination of perceptions of Olympic athletes. North American Journal of Psychology, 14, 123-138.

 

Travis Langley, Ph.D. is the author of Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight.

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