Why Is It So Fun to Watch the Olympics?
Examining the psychology behind the enjoyment for viewers.
Posted August 2, 2021 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- The Olympics are engaging to watch because of their relative novelty.
- The Olympics are liberating to watch because they are bounded by time and dissociated from political or economic ordeals.
- Thus, they have the power to bring people together and foster a sense of social connectedness.
Though the “2020” Olympic Games began a little more than a week ago amidst voices of concern about it becoming a super-spreader event, the Tokyo Olympics has eased into its second half without any major outbreaks (needless to say, it was a prudent decision to disallow spectators). Millions of people from all over the globe are having fun watching and cheering for their nations’ athletes to compete, in the comfort of their homes. I have been no exception.
Just last weekend, as my family and I nibbled on some fried chicken in the living room, we watched athletes compete for medals for a whole array of sports—fencing, archery, swimming, judo, and gymnastics, to name a few. If you’re like us, the last time we watched any of those sports on TV was probably five years ago during the Rio Olympics. Despite our embarrassing ignorance on each sport (still not exactly sure how the rules are different between épée and sabre in fencing) or on who the star athletes are, we genuinely had fun watching this year's Olympics.
But we also knew that when this Olympics is over, it wouldn’t be another three years until we would be watching any of those sports being played in Paris. After all, I’ve never been a big fan of track and field or gymnastics. Why, then, is it so much fun to watch the Olympics?
The Olympics are engaging and liberating to watch.
According to my dissertation research (discussed in more detail here in my previous blog post), the experience of fun is an experience of liberating engagement. That is, we feel like we’re having the most fun when we experience a psychological release from external or internalized restrictions (e.g., obligations, self-discipline, financial pressures, etc.) through an engaging, pleasurable activity.
So, what makes watching the Olympic Games engaging and liberating? In my research on the psychology of fun—which involved analyzing hundreds of fun narratives, interviews, and photo ethnographies over a span of five years—I identify one key ingredient of hedonic engagement as the relative novelty of the experience. Because the Olympics is held once every four years and because we don’t spectate superhuman abilities in various sports from around the world on a daily basis (at least for most of us), the novelty of the event makes it a lot more absorbing. The feeling of doing or seeing something novel has long been shown to increase attention (Fagan 1973), and when this felt novelty is driven by a hedonic source, we experience such novelty as particularly fun.
The Olympics brings people together.
Another key driver of engagement is the sense of social connectedness that is prevalent in the Olympic Games. Social connectedness is not just about the mere presence of others but the feeling of being connected to others through a common, focal activity. This is especially salient in the Olympics, during which the “team” you cheer for is the same for almost all fellow citizens, even if you dissent with your friend or uncle on many other topics or professional sports teams. Whether it’s news on who won the medal or which team fell short, the stories around the Olympics give you “social currency” to share with your friends, family, and colleagues, promoting a greater sense of connectedness.
The fun spirit of the Olympics
Then, what makes the Olympics so liberating to watch? Somewhat ironically, my research suggests that felt liberation is heightened when there is a presence of temporal or spatial boundedness. That is, the knowledge that the festivities will only go on for approximately two weeks, bounded by a relatively short timeframe (as opposed to long seasons or tournaments in regular sports), gives us, the spectators, a carefree and lighthearted mindset to engage and disengage with the content of the Olympic Games. As much as we are moved by the heroic efforts of the athletes and the pride we may momentarily feel as our national anthems are played on the podium, the overall experience of passively watching (and not directly competing in) the Olympics is one of pure fun.
Ultimately, having fun through the Olympics—whether you’re participating, organizing, or spectating—is one sure way to commemorate the founding spirits of Pierre de Coubertin, the visionary of the modern Olympics. At its ideal pinnacle, the Olympics aims to bring all peoples and nations together, liberated from the ordeals of politics or economic hardships, and actively engaged in world-class performances of sports, during one of history’s greatest celebrations of humanity.
Fagan, Joseph F. (1973). Infants' Recognition Memory for Faces. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 14(3), 453-76.
International Olympics Committee (n.d.). Pierre de Coubertin. Retrieved from https://olympics.com/ioc/pierre-de-coubertin
Oh, Travis Tae and Michel Tuan Pham (forthcoming), "A Liberating-Engagement Theory of Consumer Fun," Journal of Consumer Research.