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Fandom usually means tracking your favorite team for years − so why are the Olympics so good at making us root for sports and athletes we tune out most of the time?

ph. A fan cheers for U.S. tennis players in the men’s doubles gold medal match during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano

Noah Cohan, Washington University in St. Louis


Every four years, millions of Americans join billions of their fellow humans across the globe to celebrate the astonishing athletic feats at the Summer Olympics.

Warm-weather sports such as swimming and track that usually don’t capture much attention in U.S. media suddenly vault to the forefront. National teams compete in world championships every year, but it is only at the Olympics that casual fans root on the red, white and blue.

Why do the Olympics capture our attention in a way that nothing but soccer’s World Cup can approximate? And why does our nationalist rooting extend to sports that are otherwise obscure?

As a sports studies scholar with a special interest in fandom, I have found that sporting affiliations are fundamental to millions of people’s sense of identity. For many Americans, being a Packers or a Lakers or a Notre Dame fan is the primary way they identify themselves, before their job, religion or ethnic heritage. They organize their lives around the schedules of their chosen teams, adorn their bodies to show their support and build a community of friends among fellow enthusiasts.

Fundamentally, I have argued, this is a process of storytelling, weaving a team’s triumphs and struggles together with details from fans’ own lives.

Much like a religious community, fans also like to see their values reflected in the team and its stars, cherishing athletes who show like-mindedness to particular causes via community service or charitable giving.

In both cases, these meaningful connections are made via long-standing connections between athletes and fans – imagined relationships built over months, years and even decades.


Four people with their arms extended, cheering, seen from below with an American flag in the foreground.
U.S. fans watch the artistic gymnastics women’s team final at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

Team USA

Unlike most team allegiances, the Olympics are not a day-to-day or seasonal pursuit. They come into Americans’ lives in intense two-week bursts every few years, filling viewers with wonder as they watch athletes, most of whom they don’t recognize. It’s a very different type of sports story. So why do spectators feel so connected with players and fellow fans?

To explain the potency of sports affiliation, scholars often cite political scientist Benedict Anderson’s idea of “imagined communities.”

Anderson hypothesized that human beings like to feel connected to a larger group, even if that group becomes so big that it is mostly made up of people we do not know personally – like an entire nation.

For Anderson, why someone feels “American” has more to do with collective imagination and a desire for community than the technical details of citizenship or national laws. Despite the incredibly wide range of American experiences – not to mention an increasingly divisive political atmosphere – Americans still want to imagine that we share an essential national identity that Team USA represents on the world stage.


A formal showroom with mannequins in red, white and blue athletic outfits.
The Team USA Paris Olympics attire is unveiled at Ralph Lauren headquarters on June 17, 2024, in New York. Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

By wrapping athletes in flag-themed uniforms, the Olympics capture casual watchers’ attention, in spite of most competitors’ obscurity. The opening ceremony’s parade of flags primes viewers for this experience, encouraging them to cheer for their country.


Patriotic prime time

Still, longing for an “imagined community” is not enough to explain why viewers dedicate so much attention and emotion to a young canoeing phenomenon paddling for gold or a wrestler overcoming health crises to compete.

There’s another force shaping the American Olympic experience: the media microscope of NBC Sports.

NBC has held exclusive U.S. broadcast media rights for the Summer Games and Winter Games since 1988 and 2002, respectively, paying billions for the privilege of rendering the iconic Olympic rings beneath the network’s rainbow peacock logo. In 2014, NBC agreed to pay the International Olympic Committee US$7.65 billion for the rights to the Summer Games and Winter Games from 2021 to 2032.

With that much money invested, NBC is intent on maximizing American attention to the Games – and buoy their own bottom line. Historically, they’ve been quite successful, peaking at 27 million prime-time viewers, on average, in 2016. During the delayed 2020 Tokyo Games, that number plummeted to 15.5 million, its lowest ever for a Summer Olympics; however, digital views and streaming rose in Tokyo and during the Beijing Games in 2022.


A handful of people standing inside put their hands up to their faces in suspense.
People in a New York bar watch the U.S. women’s soccer team take on Japan during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. AP Photo/Alex Katz

But the Olympics coverage NBC provides is not a neutral or unfiltered view. For one thing, the network tends to ignore or downplay criticism of the Games’ administration, the host nation and the IOC.

And when it comes to creating “imagined community,” NBC takes the craft of storytelling quite seriously. Their coverage includes the contests themselves, with the requisite play-by-play announcers, informational graphics and pre- and postmatch interviews. But it also relies heavily on airing soft-focus profiles of American athletes, with an overwhelming emphasis on their families, overcoming adversity, and other stories likely to tug at the heartstrings of the viewer.

These sportsmen and sportswomen become main characters in the viewers’ understanding of the Olympic drama – figures whose sympathetic stories are carefully crafted to encourage fans’ investment of time, attention and emotion in following them throughout the Games. {Each viewer needs to be motivated to tune in: For example, will sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson overcome her previous heartbreak and triumph on the Olympic stage?

Feats of athleticism can amaze and astonish in local parks or playing fields, just as they can on television. But ultimately, it is the feeling of connection to something bigger – to athletes and viewers across the world – that entices so many people watching the Olympics every four years.

The imagined community that American fans feel part of when they root for Team USA is no accident. The alluring dynamics of fandom, nationalism and dramatic storytelling have been carefully orchestrated to capture our attention, for better or worse.


Noah Cohan, Assistant Director of American Culture Studies, Washington University in St. Louis

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.