I hope you aren’t suggesting that loving sports in the Olympics somehow contributes to hating other countries during the other three years and fifty weeks between Summer Olympics. (Let’s face it. No one cares enough about the Winter Olympics to hate Norway for winning the ski jump, or Canada for always winning at curling.)
Regardless of whether it’s the Olympics, an inter-city rivalry (Suck it, Celtics!), or even the fault line created within a city when the Bruins play the Trojans, sports fans feel thrills that are impossible to experience watching any other human activity. If you’re not into sports, you will never get that.
But after the games are over, people do return to their normal perceptions. People from L.A. don’t hate Boston or San Francisco because of sports rivalries. And if there is any animosity felt by individuals toward another city, it was already there before the games and will remain there long after the games.
What you didn’t point out is how sports can help transform culture. We value the perseverance, athleticism and beauty in great sports performance, regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation. Transcendent athletes becomes heroes to young people and chip away at negative cultural biases.
Jackie Robinson opened the doors when he broke baseball’s color barrier, and started to change the national conversation from being judged on your color to being judged by your performance. Muhhamed Ali’s opposition to the Viet Nam War was one of the greatest statements ever made by an athlete. So was the 1968 Olympic protest by Tommy Smith and John Carlos. And Arthur Ashe breaking the sports color barrier by playing in South Africa in 1973. Even LeBron James and the Miami Heat wearing hoodies helped communicate the message that black men wearing a certain piece of clothing does not mean they are gang bangers.
When little girls see the USA gymnastics team, they see a diverse group of girls doing superhuman feats. It doesn’t matter what color the viewers are. After 2012, they all wanted to be Gabby Douglas. This year, it will probably be Simone Biles, but if Laurie Hernandez or Aly Raisman wins an individual gold medal, a new generation will dream about being champions like them.
We’ve had members of the gay and lesbian community representing our country as Olympians and we cheer them because they are on our team. Now, we’re got a transgender man who is a member of our Olympic team breaking prejudices about that misunderstood group.
In the United States, sports are a uniter. (I can’t talk about the psychology of soccer fans in other countries, because of the hooliganism by a small group of supporters.) It may not last past the last event, but our shared spirit is a small step forward in our collective consciousness. And that’s something for which I’m grateful, not worried.