Red, white, and rivalry: A brief discussion of United States rivalry at the Tokyo Olympic Games

Prof Cody T. Havard

Professor of Sport Commerce at The University of Memphis, where he researches rivalry in consumer settings to better understand its impact on group membership and society. He also produces and hosts the Being a Fan of Disney Podcast with Cody T. Havard, Ph.D.

Watching the closing ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, one is told how sport is a catalyst to bring people together from diverse backgrounds for a common bond. Historically, the Olympic Games have been treated by the media as an event that attracts competitors and fans from the world over and celebrates the inspirational nature of sport as something that can bridge divisions and bring the world together. However, not seen by many casual observers is the competition and rivalry among participating nations, and use of the Olympic Games as a way to display the relative importance in the geopolitical landscape. The Games allows fans to show support for their country, and the current commentary focuses on some of the relationships the United States shares with other athletic and political rival nations.  

What is rivalry?

Rivalry is a phenomenon that many people can identify and discuss, however is one that can be misinterpreted and misunderstood. Rivalry starts from two groups or individuals engaged in direct or indirect competition, and variables such as proximity, parity, perceived fairness, and cultural differences contribute to its impact. To measure how people view rival groups, Havard, Gray, Gould, Sharp, and Schaffer introduced a scale that allows for conclusions about the phenomenon’s influence on consumer and group behavior. For example, consumer and group settings such as online gaming, politics, and sport influence greater negativity toward rival groups than mobile phone, direct-to-consumer streaming, comics, or science fiction consumption.

In sport, gender, identification, competition level, and changes in competition can influence the way people perceive rival teams and supporters. In turn, rivalry can influence consumption such as live game attendance, premium ticket pricing, watching televised games, and wearing merchandise, along with behaviors such as stereotyping, helping others in emergency situations, and consideration of anonymous aggression. Additionally, people can experience schadenfreude or Glory Out of Reflected Failure, and celebrate perceived failures by a rival group. For example, some fans of United States Olympic teams may have rejoiced when the International Olympic Committee ruled Russian athletes would have to compete under a Russian Olympic Committee banner rather than their nation’s flag at a number of Olympic Games including Tokyo.

Beyond its impact on fandom, rivalry can influence strategy and decision making among organizations and individuals. For example, rivalry can encourage unethical behavior among decision makers in order to best competitors. Such deviant behavior was on display in the Tokyo Olympics when a runner allegedly spilled water bottles on the course to inhibit following competitor’s ability to rehydrate during the men’s marathon race. 

United States rivalry and the Tokyo Olympic Games

The United States shares rivalries with other nations competing at the Olympic Games. Perhaps the most notable United States rivalry is the one shared with Russia, dating to the intense athletic and political competitions during the Cold War between America and the former USSR. For example, both nations used the Olympic Games as a way to promote their messaging on the international stage, often trying to recruit athletes to defect from their home countries as a way to prove superiority. There also exists the potential that a country such as China is presented as a national rival to the United States that encompasses athletic competition at the Olympics, based on the two nations political stances and athletic comparisons. Within individual sports, the United States shares rivalries with nations that compete for athletic notoriety in the Summer Games. For example, Australia presents an engaging athletic rivalry for America in swimming, while Japan and Canada have both played rival in Women’s Soccer, and perhaps persisting from the former Cold War rivals, the United States and Russia also share a rivalry in Women’s Gymnastics. 

Specific to the Tokyo Summer Games, the United States performed relatively well against sport and political rivals. While the United States finished behind Canada in Women’s Soccer, and the Russian Olympic Committee in Women’s Gymnastics, the American’s fared better in the swimming pool against Australia. Additionally, the United States defeated both China and the Russian Olympic Committee in the total medal count, in addition to the number of gold medals awarded, edging out China on the final day of Olympic competition. 

The victories allow supporters of Team USA to rest easy in the comfort of athletic superiority, and engage in selective interpretation for competitions where rivals may have compared more favorably. Future competitions, both athletic and political will help determine which countries represent as rivals to the United States. The Olympic Games provide a platform for national pride and comparison; as such, many fans are along for the ride and already looking forward to February 2022.