With a final, gargantuan burst of effort, the sprinter breaks through the finishing tape to win gold. An individual triumph, achieved through a combination of physical prowess and sheer determination on the day? Or is it a shared success, the culmination of a lifetime’s worth of trials and tribulations, shaped by the sprinter’s friends, family and coaches?
An analysis of media coverage during the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City suggests the answer depends very much on where you are.
Hazel Rose Markus and her colleagues found American media coverage focused on athletes’ personal attributes and the competition they faced on the day, whereas the Japanese media also devoted attention to athletes’ life experiences, their reactions to winning or losing, and the role played by the people around them. Moreover, American coverage of athletes was overwhelmingly positive, whereas Japanese coverage paid equal attention to negative and positive aspects of the athlete and their story.
In a second study, 60 American and 60 Japanese students were asked to select 15 out of 40 possible statements that could be used by the media to describe a fictional athlete. The Americans chose statements that emphasised personal attributes and uniqueness whereas the Japanese chose statements emphasising the athlete’s coach and team, their motivation, emotion and doubt.
“Performance does not just happen for the Olympian or for the fans”, the researchers concluded. “Rather it is fashioned and ‘identified’ with the aid of a variety of implicit socioculturally grounded models…Beyond construing the ‘same’ world differently, perceivers experience and create somewhat different worlds”.
Markus, H.Z., Uchida, Y., Omoregie, H., Townsend, S.S.M. & Kitayama, S. (2006). Going for the Gold. Models of agency in Japanese and American contexts. Psychological Science, 17, 103-112.