From the Oscars to the Olympics, a UBC sociologist explores our global obsession with winning
As the world prepares for a trinity of major sporting events – the Superbowl, Sochi and FIFA’s World Cup – Prof. Francesco Duina, Dept. of Sociology, explores our primal fascination with winning and losing.
What does winning give competitors besides a medal?
Winning is a social event and comes with very rich meanings and functions. Winning a medal is often seen as a confirmation of one’s skills and abilities as a person, not only as an athlete. Indeed, it is a confirmation about ‘being right’ about many things – such as one’s approach to challenges, fears, aspirations, and life in general. Winning also has spatial qualities: winners are entitled to more ‘space’ – in the media, on the podium and in their minds. Above all, winning is about feeling legitimate and that we rightly belong in this world.
When people lose – in sports, business, even award shows – what happens to their sense of self and personal outlook?
Extensive psychological and sociological research suggests that losing can have serious repercussions on one’s self-esteem and understanding of belonging and legitimacy. Losers tend to doubt themselves broadly – even in areas that have nothing to do with the event itself. Losing also triggers much more self-analysis than winning. If the individual represents a country, as with the Olympics, then the entire cultural, economic, and political systems of that country are called into question. It can often be an unbearable amount of pressure.
In North America the Olympics are followed passionately – does this differ in other countries? If so, how and why?
Many countries follow the Olympics very passionately because what is at stake is their national, and therefore people’s personal, identity. For smaller or less endowed countries that are not expected to excel, what is at stake is often very different. The focus may be only on certain sport events, or simply on participating and trying to do well. Then the ‘process’ rather than the outcome may be at the centre of public attention.