The Olympics are almost upon us and athletes all over the world are gearing up for the grand festival. Men and women will compete to see who is No. 1 in 26 sports. Those whose athletic abilities and mental toughness allow them to dominate everyone in their sport will take away gold, silver or bronze medals and walk proudly in the sun of celebrity worship. They will be treated like royalty, garnering sponsorship deals, appearing on talk shows, and taking their pick of friends. They will be stress-free.
The vast majority of competitors will leave empty handed and broken hearted. Their lives likely will be miserable. Hardly anybody will care about them, since generally people only care about winners. They will not be worshiped. They will not get sponsorship deals or appear on talk shows. People and lovers will not vie for their favor. They will not be stress-free.
Humans are not the only animals to engage in competition. Indeed, anybody who has watched the Discovery Channel has witnessed competition among and between all classes of animal life. The will to win--to dominate others--is probably deeply ingrained in the psyches of humans and almost all other animals.
Recently, a study by biologist Robert Sapolsky has reached the public airways via a National Geographic special: "Stress: Portrait of a Killer." Sapolsky, who is the author of several books, has spent many years studying baboons on the plains of East Africa. He has noted the competition that goes on in the tribe year after year. The males battle it out to see who will be the dominant male and thereby have their pick of all the females in the tribe. The females compete in a less visible way to see who will be the one chosen by the dominant male.
Sapolsky not only calls attention to this struggle for dominance that takes place in baboon tribes (as well as in the tribes of other animals), but he has also discovered the link between dominance and stress. By taking blood samples from various members of the baboon tribe, ranging from the top baboon to the nerdiest baboon, Sapolsky was able to measure the quantity of stress hormones in the blood of each animal. What he found was that the more dominant an animal was, the less stress he had in his body, while those baboons that were at the bottom of the hierarchy had the most stress.
The documentary also points to similar research that has been done with humans. When Michael Marmot and colleagues studied employees of a company in London, they found that the top dog-the CEO-had the least amount of stress while the lower-echelon employees, such as mailroom workers, had the most stress.
This research shows that there appears to be a psychobiological instinct to compete among almost all animals, including humans. In the animal world this competition is often for survival, but at other times, as in the baboon tribe, it is for privileges. Animals--as well as humans--use the stress response to fight or flee danger. But in the modern world of $4-a-gallon gas, 30-year mortgages, difficult bosses and traffic jams, the stress response for humans can become chronic, and we may end up with ulcers, heart disease, and an array of other disorders.
By analogy we can say that those Olympic athletes who manage to dominate will have less stress and less disease. Those who are defeated will have more stress and possibly more disease.
And so our finest and best athletes are off to the Olympic Games to test their competitive ability and reach the highest of natural highs. They have already had to claw their way to the top of the American system of athletics. Now they most fight their way to the top of the world's competition.
LeBron James and the current basketball dream team will try to beat down other teams from across the world; Abby Wambach and the women's soccer team will attempt to wrest the gold medal from all the other soccer teams; Michael Phelps and the American swim team will be out to dominate the rest of the world in the swimming events; and Tyson Gay will lead American runners in their attempt to reign supreme and track and field.
The good news is that athletic competition is a constructive channeling of the psychobiological will to win, both for the athletes themselves and for fans all over the world. If athletes and fans were not channeling their aggression into the Olympic venue, it might come out in other destructive forms such as war, crime, or other hostile behavior against others. Perhaps even worse, it might be taken out against the self in the form of excessive drinking, smoking or eating.
Even though we may be aware of the psychobiological underpinnings of Olympic competition, we may yet enjoy it as the epitome of a constructive adaptation to humankind's aggressive nature.
"Let the games begin," might be changed to, "Let the constructive competitions begin."
Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. , is a licensed psychoanalyst, professor of psychology and author of 20 books. He is also an avid sports fan.
- Sports & Recreation