Global Impact

Want to bridge the gaping political divide between you and your neighbor?

Invite her over to watch the Olympics. With the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang completed and the Paralympics scheduled to begin on Mar. 8, the Olympic Games provide an opportunity for people to come together, watching, cheering and celebrating.

It turns out that in a polarized America, where many Democrats and Republicans have a hard time even talking to each other, my research has found that one thing we can all agree on are the Olympics and the values the games represent.

Respect, excellence, friendship

In ancient Greece, the Olympics' birthplace, the games brought athletes and regions together in peace through the guiding principle of "Olympic Truce." The Olympic Truce guaranteed that athletes, their families and those who wanted to watch the Olympic Games could, despite any political hostilities, travel between their home countries and the games in complete safety.

The ancient Olympic Truce connects, in a way, to the modern-day "Olympic Ideals," which are respect, excellence and friendship. They were established as a core ingredient of the Olympic movement in the late 19th century, when international athletic officials joined together to revive the ancient games.

But in modern times, the games have sometimes been overrun by political tensions. During the 1980 Russia Olympics, the U.S. boycotted the games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. That boycott was endorsed by a near-unanimous vote of Congress. Nations across the globe, including Canada, West Germany, South Korea and Chile, also boycotted the games that year.

How do the Olympics influence people today? Are Olympic values important for a person's life? Can they unite politically diverse groups?

It was with those questions in mind that I conducted a survey to examine the perceptions of Republicans and Democrats about Olympic values. I also wanted to survey their attitudes toward North and South Korea meeting to jointly participate in the Games.

Olympics about more than sports

Could these largely divided political groups agree on the universal Olympic values promoted by the Olympic Games? Would they agree with the idea that the Olympics bring people together?

On Jan. 18, 2018, I conducted an online survey among 200 U.S. participants. The respondents were mostly male (55.5 percent), white (80 percent), with 54 percent earning an income between $20,000 and $60,000. Half of them had a college degree and most of them (72.5 percent) were employed. On average, the participants were 36 years old.

The survey asked a series of questions regarding their feelings about, and perceptions of, the Olympics; how they felt about statements that described Olympic values; and whether they were Republicans or Democrats.

In response, both Republicans and Democrats identified themselves as Olympics fans in similar numbers. Both Democrats and Republicans had similar feelings about the 11 statements related to the Olympic values of excellence, respect and friendship. The respondents also shared very positive perceptions about the Olympic Games as a sports competition.

(Click here to view an infographic showing the results of a survey where 200 Americans, Republicans and Democrats, were asked how they felt about statements that reflect the Olympic ideals.)

Given the heightened tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, I also sought to determine whether being a Democrat or Republican played any role in respondents' perceptions about the talks between North and South Korea. Those talks had led to a decision by the previously hostile neighboring countries to send a team jointly to the 2018 games.

The results revealed that both Democrats and Republicans believed that the hosting of the Games will have little influence on the relationship between North and South Korea.

Despite the generally positive perceptions shared by Democrats and Republicans on Olympic values and their common belief that the games would not change the relationship between North and South Korea, differences showed up between the two groups in other responses.

Democrats perceived the news about the two Koreas meeting to send a joint team to the Olympics more positively than Republicans. When asked whether the Olympic Games bring nations closer, Democrats were much more positive compared to Republicans. Democrats also believed more strongly than Republicans that the Games promote peace.

Despite these differences, my research demonstrates that the values related to the Olympic Games as well as the image of the games as a sports competition are overall perceived positively by survey participants on either side of the U.S. political spectrum. In an increasingly polarized country, that's an unusual finding – and an unexpected opportunity.

Kyriaki Kaplanidou, Ph.D. Author
February 28, 2018