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Why We Love Watching the Olympics

How stories of redemption give us hope.

Are you glued to your TV like I am? I am something of a sports fan, mostly football, but every time the Olympics comes around I promise myself that I will not spend hours and hours sucked into watching TV. And then the build-up, and the first few events, and there I am, watching until I am bleary-eyed late into the night, feeling every emotion, from joy to crushing defeat. Why is watching the Olympic games so addictive? A good part of the answer is that it has nothing to do with sports at all, but with stories. The “up close and personal,” stories of struggle and strength, of overcoming injury and hardship, of fighting back and fighting through. Stories of redemption. This year, the women gymnasts have been a big part of the Olympic story.

Simone Biles is arguably the greatest female gymnast of all time. Watching her is amazing, but hearing her story warms your heart. She was born to a troubled mother and early hardship. When the state removed her mother’s parental rights, Simone’s grandparents stepped in and provided a home, safety and security. And support, lots of support. Simone overcame her early challenges through the love of others, and her own unbelievably hard work, to become successful beyond what most of us can imagine. This is a classic story of redemption, of overcoming hardship through strength and work, and achieving success. It is the classic American Dream story, and we resonate to its rhythm.

Aly Raisman has a different redemption story. Hers is not of early hardship. She was born into a middle class family, both parents also student athletes when they were younger. Aly certainly worked hard to achieve her gymnast credentials, but it was in the London Olympics that she faced her life-altering challenge. She tied for the bronze medal in the individual all around, and in a disheartening tie-breaker lost the medal. What was supposed to be her last Olympics and her crowning glory, was lost. And so she decided to come back and compete in 2016 to earn a medal. Not everyone, including her coach, supported this decision. But Aly was determined. And now, with a silver medal in the individual all round, she is redeemed. Again, a story of overcoming the odds.

It is these stories that we love, that keep us glued to the TV, rooting for our favorite athletes. It is these stories that we resonate to. We may not all be Olympic athletes, but we all face obstacles. Stories of redemption, of facing up to hardship, of working hard and striving, and overcoming great difficulties, help us understand our own struggles in new ways. We may not win medals, we may not even succeed in our endeavors, but stories of redemption help us face our own challenges.

Research by Dan McAdams and his colleagues shows how everyday adults who narrate their lives in more redemptive terms, focusing on overcoming hardship, on learning life lessons, on receiving love and support in the face of difficulty, have a greater sense of meaning and purpose in life. This is the power of stories: When we think we cannot go on, when it is just too hard and no one really understands, we hear these stories, and we gain strength. These stories inspire us and give us hope. This is why, when Simone and Aly cried, we cried with them, tears of relief, tears of joy, tears of redemption.

More from Robyn Fivush Ph.D.
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