American Olympic Favoritism

Team USA beats Soviets in 1980 OlympicsMegan McArdle offers a defense of Americans from the charge that Americans are only interested in Olympic sports in which Americans are strong medal contenders, noting that we’re a large country with established team sports loyalty and so forth.  It’s all true.

More fundamentally, though, I reject the premise that Americans’ America-centric view of sports is problematic.  As Sir Paul McCartney, a Brit, put it some years back, discussing another subject altogether, “What’s wrong with that, I’d like to know?”

I’m a pretty big fan of American football.  I try not to miss an NFL game involving the Dallas Cowboys or a college game involving the Alabama Crimson Tide.  But given the opportunity, I’ll watch any other NFL or major college game that’s on.  Even the Arena League will get a few minutes of my time if I stumble on a game.  Ditto Canadian football. Or Brett Favre throwing warm-up to high school kids.

I’m a casual fan of baseball, meaning I’ll watch a game in which I have a rooting interest.  I used to watch pretty much every Atlanta Braves game that aired, which was to say pretty much every Atlanta Braves game played, until moving out of their coverage area and, especially, getting married.  But, even when I was rabidly watching the Braves, I never watched a non-Braves game unless it was the World Series.

The same is true of basketball, except that I’ve never really had a team.  I tend to follow particular athletes, from Julius Irving to Larry Bird to Michael Jordan.  I caught quite a bit of Jordan’s career, especially.  I’ll watch college ball, too, once the tournament season starts, but don’t really mind missing a game.  If I’m in a pool or a team I’ve got some reason to care about is alive in the tourney, I’ll catch those games, too.

Were it not for the Olympics, I would quickly forget that archery, badminton, BMX racing, canoeing, cricket, croquet, diving, equestrian, fencing, handball, judo, modern pentathlon, rowing, sailing, shooting, synchronized swimming, table tennis, triathlon, water polo, weighlifting, and (real) wrestling existed as sports.  To say that I’m even a casual fan of any of those events, on their own merits, would be an overstatement of tremendous magnitude.  So why, exactly, should I suddenly get interested in it every four years lacking a rooting interest?

The same, incidentally, is true of non-Olympic periodic sports, like the World Cup.  If Team USA is alive, I’ll watch out of the corner of my eye.  If they advance to the late rounds, my interest will pique.  Once the red, white, and blue is done, though, so am I.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Boyd says:

    You’re just a jingoistic narcissist. Or something like that.

  2. Triumph says:

    I am generally with you on the olympics.

    I especially hate swimming and track and field–the only way racing in any form is interesting is if you have money riding on it–like at the horses.

    Hell, the Olympics is so lame that even the horse events don’t have betting!

    I dig soccer in general, so I’ll watch that. Luckily, most of the major pros are playing, so it will be a decent tourney (unlike, say, baseball).

    I actually love watching badminton, but they never seem to show much of it.

    But in general, with the baseball pennant races heating up, I’ll be watching that this month.

  3. Bithead says:

    Well, if we view all of this as part of something larger, perhaps the larger question here is what is wrong with cheering for one’s own country even outside the sports arena, and hoping they win? I mean, I recognize that’s become ‘uncool’… We’ve seen so little of it from our own Congress of late, for example…

  4. sam says:

    There was a great heavywieght Russian weightlifter years ago, Vasiliy Alekseyev, who was asked if he’d watched the bantam-weight (or whatever it’s called) competition. No, he said, who wants to watch little men lifting little weights.

  5. bains says:

    First, too often critics forget that every other citizen of another nation is rooting for their ‘home team’. It is self deception, and utter arrogance, to only accuse the USA of this.

    Second, as a devoted follower of more obscure sports – cycling, sailing, and skiing – I like the Olympics. Certainly all three have a bigger prize outside of the Olympic realm, and in fact, I really don’t pay too much attention to Olympic cycling, yet the international competition enthralls me. Not only have most of the competitors faced off against one another, by in many instances, they were, and will be again, team-mates. Any bets on how many non-US citizens attend US schools?

    The point being, it is in the spirit of the games that competitors represent their country – and with few exceptions they do it well – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Chances are that those admonishing nationalistic tendencies are only admonishing their own countrymen, and have a pre-existing self-loathing of their country.

  6. bains says:

    OK, I lied. Following up with minutia, Samuel Sánchez (Spain) won one of the first golds of these Olympic games. Road cycling. His name is lost to the world outside Spain, but not lost in the world of cycling. A worthy champion.

  7. bains says:

    finish line photo added…
    The games are great!

  8. Matthew Stinson says:

    Well, from watching the media over here it’s pretty bloody obvious that the Chinese not only favor sports like ping pong, gymnastics, and tennis, but also choose to focus almost exclusively on Chinese team competition when repeating highlights. In other words, America is totally unexceptional when it comes to this kind of coverage.

  9. JM Hanes says:

    I’m not a sports fan, but I’ll take in the World Series of just about anything. Watching the best of the best is almost always interesting.

    Rooting for the home team doesn’t bother me. What I find objectionable is the media coverage. You don’t get the best of the best, let alone any of the rest, you just get the best of the Americans. Coverage is not just focused on Amercian performers, to the exclusion of almost everyone else, it’s obsessively fixated on the gold count. When an athlete gets a bronze medal, the first question he’s most likely to be asked is be how he feels about losing the gold.

    I can’t recall the exact timeline, but I associate a decided change in media attitudes with the network shift that marked Dick Button’s exit from the commentator’s booth, because of a non-compete clause in his contract. The “new improved” model consisted of substituting soft-focus “human interest” athelete profiles (all conveniently taped in advance) for the real drama and coherent coverage of the actual competitions. There were suddenly countless events where the network didn’t even bother to cover anyone but the American competitor at all. That’s when I began to lose interest in the whole affair. It was like baseball stats without the baseball.