From international sports to international competition: Longitudinal study of the Beijing Olympic Games

Authors


Yan-mei Li, Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, 4A Datun Road, Beijing 100101, China. Email: liym@psych.ac.cn

Abstract

To investigate whether and how the Beijing Olympic Games influenced the Chinese competitiveness towards foreigners, we conducted a three-wave longitudinal study and found that participants' competitiveness towards foreigners from five comparison target nations, particularly towards Japanese, South Koreans and Kenyans, was higher during the Games than before and/or after. We further found that nationalism predicted the competitiveness toward Japanese and South Koreans, but did not predict the competitiveness toward Americans, Russians and Kenyans. Additionally, we found that patriotism played little role in the effects of the Games on competitiveness towards foreigners. We herein discuss the relationship between national comparisons, nationalism and national conflict.

Introduction

‘The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity' (The International Olympic Committee, 2007). In reality, the Olympic Games are an international multi-sport event, which give nations a chance to show their power through sports and give people a chance to feel proud of their nation. Do the Olympic Games influence a lay person's perception of foreigners? Do they increase or decrease the competitiveness of lay people towards foreigners and thus have implications for international peace?

The present study investigated whether and how the Beijing Olympic Games influenced lay Chinese people's competitiveness versus cooperativeness towards foreigners. Specifically, we conducted a longitudinal study at three time points (wave 1—3 months before the Olympic games, wave 2—2 weeks after the Olympic games, and wave 3—3 months after the Olympic games) to track a sample of Chinese college students' perceptions of people from several target foreign countries. We chose five target nations—USA, Russia, Japan, South Korea and Kenya. As USA and Russia are potential comparison counterparts of China in the world, and Japan and South Korea are potential competitors with China in Asia, these nations were chosen as the likely targets of comparison for China. Although Kenya is not seen as a competitor of China, the excellent performances of Kenyans in middle and long distance races could render Kenya a potential competitor specifically during the Olympics. (In fact, these claims received empirical support from a post-experimental study, see below, on Beijing Chinese's perceptions of the five target nations.)

In the Games, as representatives of their nations, athletes compete with each other in various sporting events. Their performance is evaluated by medals, and the medal counts are tabulated by nations. Therefore, from the perspective of intergroup behaviour, the Olympic Games are an intergroup interaction in which many nation groups compare and compete in sports. For this reason, the Games are also intergroup comparisons—comparisons between nations—by means of international competition in sports. In fact, national comparison is a significant and important feature of the Games. Evidence indicates that merely the presence of the symbols of an outgroup is sufficient to arouse awareness of ingroup identity (Wilder & Shapiro, 1984). When group identity is salient, individuals engage in intergroup comparisons (Kawagami & Dion, 1995). The presence of many outgroups (foreign countries) in the Olympic Games is sufficient to make people's national identities become salient. People may be more likely to engage in national comparisons at the time of the Olympic Games. Festinger (1954) indicated that social comparisons should not lead to performance matching but rather to competition. Munkes and Diehl (2003) also found that intergroup comparison can lead to intergroup competition. Thus, the Beijing Olympic Games may highlight national comparisons and, in turn, national comparisons during the Beijing Games may highlight competition between nations. That is, the Olympics may make it legitimate to display a competitive tendency towards nations that are competitive with one's own nation. The Beijing Games could therefore intensify people's competitive behaviours (or reduce people's cooperative behaviours) towards competing nations, especially towards the relevant comparison nations.

In an intergroup situation, people compare themselves with relevant outgroups (Brewer & Brown, 1998). USA and Russia are potential competitors with China in the world, Japan and South Korea are potential competitors with China in Asia. They could be regarded as the relevant comparison targets for China. Kenya is not a competitor of China, but because the performance of Kenyans in middle and long distance races is always impressive, Kenya may also be considered to be a relevant comparison target for China.

Hypothesis 1: We predicted that the Beijing Olympic Games would increase Chinese competitiveness towards foreigners, especially towards foreigners who are from the comparative target nations. We expected that Chinese competitiveness towards these foreigners would be higher shortly after the Games (wave 2) than before the Games (wave 1) or 3 months after the Games (wave 3).

China, Japan, and South Korea are all nations in East Asia. They are geographically close to each other and have cultural similarities and greater contact with each other in daily life than with other nations. They are also potential competitors with each other. As a result, Japan and South Korea might be more salient nation groups for China. Salient information or concepts have more influence on subsequent judgments or decisions (e.g. Beckett & Park, 1995; Hamilton, Fallot, & Hautaluoma, 1978). Salient outgroups are therefore more likely to be regarded as comparison targets by ingroups. For that reason, Japan and South Korea can possibly be seen as the most relevant comparison targets for China. We found empirical support for this assumption in a post-experimental study shown below. The Beijing Olympic Games may highlight national comparisons as well as the competitiveness between China, Japan and South Korea. The effects of the Olympics on competitiveness toward foreigners might be more significantly seen on Japanese and South Koreans.

Hypothesis 2: We predicted that the effect stated in Hypothesis 1 should be more pronounced for Japanese and South Korean targets than for the remaining targets.

The Olympic Games are national comparisons by means of sports. Intergroup comparisons maximize intergroup differences, minimize intragroup differences and heighten the salience of a group (nation)'s social identity (Turner, 1985, 1987). A salient group identity affects the content of self-categorizations and improves group identification (Haslam, Oakes, Reynolds, & Turner, 1999). Thus, the Olympic Games may improve nation identification and influence people's national attitudes—nationalism and patriotism. Nationalism refers to the view that one's own nation is superior and should be dominant, and patriotism refers to feelings of attachment to one's own nation (Kosterman & Feshbach, 1989). Nationalism and patriotism may best be viewed as representing different manifestations of national identification (e.g. Blank & Schmidt, 2003; Kosterman & Feshbach, 1989; Mummendey, Klink, & Brown, 2001; Schatz & Staub, 1997). Indeed, studies have shown that the Olympic Games stimulate both nationalism and patriotism (e.g. Billings & Eastman, 2003; Murata et al., 2006). Murata et al. (2006) found that the level of nationalism and patriotism of the Japanese after the Athens Olympic Games was significantly higher than before the Games.

However, nationalism, a dominance-based ideology that emphasizes a sense of international superiority, tends to be related to intolerance of diversity, ethnocentrism, anti-egalitarian values, and prejudice (e.g. Butz, Plant, & Doerr, 2007; Li & Brewer, 2004; Sidanius, Feshbach, Levin, & Pratto, 1997) as well as to a conflict strategy towards outgroups or outgroup members (Dittloff & Harris, 1996). Nationalists are more inclined to make national comparisons because superiority is the core of nationalism (Viki & Calitri, 2008). Recent studies also suggest that nationalism shows a reliable relationship only with outgroup rejection in intergroup comparisons (Mummendey et al., 2001).

Therefore, nationalism may play a role in the effects of the Games on Chinese competitiveness towards foreigners, especially in the form of competitiveness towards the nations that are the most relevant comparison targets (i.e. Japan and South Korea) for China.

Hypothesis 3: We expected that nationalism predicted competitiveness towards foreigners, particularly towards Japanese and South Korean targets in wave 2 but not in waves 1 and 3.

In contrast, some research has argued that both nationalism and patriotism play a central role in the tensions and conflicts between groups that are currently taking place all over the world (Karasawa, 2002). However, attachment to one's ingroup does not necessarily require hostility towards outgroups (Allport, 1954; Brewer, 1979, 1999). Patriotism is a positive attitude towards one's nation group without negative feelings. Blank and Schmidt (2003) found that patriotism was negatively related to outgroup devaluation. Patriotic individuals tend to select or have an orientation towards non-intergroup comparisons (Viki & Calitri, 2008). Although the Beijing Olympics probably increased the level of patriotism, the resulting high level of patriotism may not predict that people will choose a conflict strategy in intergroup interactions.

Hypothesis 4: Because ingroup love does not necessarily imply outgroup hate, patriotism would not predict competitiveness towards foreigners in any of the waves (or subsequent waves).

Post-experimental study

In order to examine the relevance of USA, Russia, Japan, South Korea and Kenya to China, we conducted a post-experimental study. This study was conducted in late September of 2009, more than a year after the Beijing Olympic Games, by which time the effects of the Olympic Games were likely to have dissipated. Thus, the results obtained would not be confounded by the Olympic Games.

Method

Ninety college students (mean age = 20.6, SD = 0.75) in Beijing (none of whom had participated in our main longitudinal study) were asked to answer six questions about each of the following countries: USA, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and Kenya. Q1: ‘How often do you compare China with this nation?’ Q2: ‘To what extent do you not wish that this nation will outperform China?’ Q3: ‘How likely is it that this nation (or people from this nation) will compete with China (or the Chinese)?’ Q4: ‘How much does this nation (or people from this nation) like China (or the Chinese)?’ Q5: ‘How much do you like this nation (or people from this nation)?’ Q6: ‘How often have you been exposed to the information about this nation (or people from this nation)?’ on a 1 (not at all) to 6 (very much) scale.

Results

Table 1 shows the means of these six questions. We found that the Chinese participants compared China most often with USA, then with Japan, South Korea, Russia, and Kenya (ts > 2.70, ps < 0.01). We further found that participants particularly did not wish Japan and South Korea to outperform China. This orientation was significantly stronger towards Japan and South Korea than towards USA, Russia, and Kenya (ts > 3.58, ps < 0.01). Most importantly, we found that participants perceived Japan, South Korea and USA (or people from Japan, South Korea, and USA) as being more likely to compete with China (or the Chinese)—with the competitiveness of Japan and South Korea towards China as being significantly stronger than that of USA, Russia and Kenya (ts > 3.05, ps < 0.01). Participants felt that Japanese and South Koreans dislike Chinese more than do Americans, Russians and Kenyans (ts > 3.02, ps < 0.01). Likewise, the participants disliked Japanese and South Koreans more than they did Americans, Russians and Kenyans (ts > 4.68, ps < 0.01). Finally, we found that participants were more often exposed to information about USA, Japan, South Korea and Russia than to information about Kenya (ts > 2.11, ps < 0.05).

Table 1.  Means of the post-experimental study
 USARussiaJapanKoreaKenya
MSDMSDMSDMSDMSD
Q15.260.883.881.044.801.254.271.151.711.03
Q23.101.702.911.474.541.603.981.702.591.72
Q34.401.263.781.065.080.884.901.032.221.23
Q43.440.973.800.842.821.053.001.204.530.84
Q53.880.953.910.842.871.163.041.263.760.81
Q65.610.654.570.955.340.875.280.792.501.05

Taken as whole, these results suggest that USA, Japan, South Korea and Russia are relevant comparison targets for China but for different reasons. Specifically, supporting our assumption, the participants wanted to differentiate China from Japan and South Korea, in particular. First, we found that participants often compared China with Japan and South Korea (which ranked second and third only after USA). Second, most importantly, they believed that Japan and South Korea were most likely to compete with China and they particularly did not wish for Japan or South Korea to outperform China. Furthermore, they believed that Japan and South Korea (or people from these nations) do not like Chinese, and vice versa that Chinese do not like Japan and South Korea (or people from these nations). Therefore, these perceptions of intergroup competitiveness and animosity make Japan and South Korea the most relevant competition targets during the Beijing Olympic Games, as we have argued.

Although the participants compared China with USA most often, they did not view USA as being as competitive and hostile as Japan and South Korea. Russia was rated moderately in competitiveness and hostility among the five target nations. According to the ratings, Kenya was neither a competitor nor a comparison target for China (despite the Kenyan athletes' outstanding performance in the middle and long distance races at the Beijing Olympic Games) probably because the participants were exposed to less information from Kenya than from Japan, South Korea, USA and Russia. These results as a whole supported our argument that the Chinese participants perceived less competition toward USA, Russia and Kenya than towards Japanese and South Koreans during the Beijing Olympic Games.

Longitudinal study

Method

Participants  A total of 920 Chinese undergraduate students (524 males and 393 females, three participants did not state their gender; mean age = 19.82 years, SD = 1.26) from four universities in Beijing were recruited in wave 1. Three hundred and fifty-nine participants (204 males and 152 females, three participants did not state their gender; mean age = 19.79 years, SD = 1.39) dropped out in one or both of the following waves. Consequently, 561 students (320 males and 241 females; mean age = 19.83, SD = 1.17) participated in all three waves of the study. The attrition was mostly due to circumstantial reasons, such as participants in the senior class seldom coming to class because of internships and other responsibilities (our survey was conducted in class) and therefore missing one or two waves. We found no difference between the mean age (F < 1, ns) or gender (χ2(1, 917) = 0.01, ns) of the participants who dropped out after wave 1 and the participants who participated in all three waves, respectively.

Measures

Competitiveness.  To investigate the effects of the Games on Chinese competitiveness towards foreigners, we used a scenario of the Prisoner's Dilemma (PD) game as the measure. This scenario consisted of a description of the PD game, a payoff matrix and a question (Appendix I). The question asked participants to answer the extent to which they would choose ‘A’ (i.e. cooperation) or ‘B’ (i.e. competition) on a six-point scale (1 = definitely choose A; 6 = definitely choose B) if they were to play the game with an American, a Russian, a Japanese, a Korean, or a Kenyan. In other words, the competition target is a between-subjects factor and, accordingly, we prepared five sets of questionnaires, of which the participants randomly received one set.1

Nationalism and patriotism.  Eight items assessing nationalism and six items assessing patriotism were taken from the scale of Murata et al. (2006), which was used to investigate the influence of the Athens Olympic Games on foreigners' image of Japanese (Appendix II). Participants were asked the extent to which they agreed with the descriptions on a scale of 1 (strongly agree) to 7 (strongly disagree). Internal reliabilities of the nationalism and patriotism measures were satisfactory (α = 0.67, α = 0.83, respectively).

Procedures  Data were collected in three waves during the period from May 2008 to December 2008. The first wave data were collected during the second and third weeks of May—about 3 months before the Games. Unfortunately, this wave was collected shortly after the unexpected occurrence of the 12 May Sichuan earthquake, which may have affected the results from wave 1. The second wave data were collected during the second and third weeks of September—about 2 weeks after the Games had finished; and the third wave data were collected during the second and third weeks of December—about 3 months after the Games. In each data collection session, participants first responded to the competitiveness measure, then to the patriotism and nationalism measure.

Results

Differences between the participants who dropped out and the participants who did not drop out  First, we found no significant difference (all Fs < 1, ns) between the competitiveness towards Japanese, South Koreans, Russians, Americans and Kenyans in wave 1 of the participants who dropped out after wave 1 (M = 4.19; 4.18; 3.51; 4.16; 3.85, SD = 1.89; 1.67; 1.79; 1.89; 1.82) and the participants who participated in all three waves (M = 3.97; 3.97; 3.61; 4.26; 3.65, SD = 1.92; 1.87; 1.76; 1.57; 1.77, respectively).

We also found that there was no significant difference in patriotism and nationalism in wave 1 of the participants who dropped out after wave 1 (M = 6.39; 5.84, SD = 0.77; 0.79) and the participants who participated all three waves (M = 6.46; 5.88, SD = 0.70; 0.71), and F = 2.02, ns, F < 1, ns, respectively.

Test of hypotheses  Mean values of competitiveness towards the five target groups in each wave are presented in Table 2. We predicted that the Beijing Olympic Games might increase Chinese competitiveness towards foreigners from the five comparison target nations and we expected that Chinese competitiveness towards these foreigners would be higher in wave 2 than in waves 1 or 3 (Hypothesis 1). We also predicted that the effect stated in Hypothesis 1 should be more pronounced for Japanese and South Korean targets than for the remaining targets (Hypothesis 2). We carried out a Target (Japanese, South Koreans, Americans, Russians, Kenyans) × Wave (Wave 1, 2, 3) anova on the competitiveness scores to test these predictions.

Table 2.  Means of Chinese competitiveness towards foreigners
 AverageAmericanRussianJapaneseKoreanKenyan
Mean (SD)NMean (SD)NMean (SD)NMean (SD)NMean (SD)NMean (SD)N
  1. The higher the score, the more competitive.

Wave 13.84 (1.80)5574.26 (1.57)943.61 (1.76)1133.97 (1.92)1073.97 (1.87)653.65 (1.77)178
Wave 24.03 (1.64)5524.03 (1.56)943.58 (1.56)1124.15 (1.68)1074.40 (1.66)634.10 (1.66)177
Wave 33.72 (1.72)5543.88 (1.71)953.46 (1.64)1123.74 (1.89)1064.32 (1.66)623.59 (1.64)178

The anova revealed a significant main effect of Wave, F(2, 538) = 4.55, p < 0.01. As expected, the results showed that participants chose a more competitive strategy when they played a PD game with a foreigner who was from one of the comparison target nations in wave 2 than in wave 3 (t = 3.08, p < 0.01) and marginally significant in wave 1 (t = 1.92, p < 0.06). These results generally supported Hypothesis 1.

The anova also revealed a marginally significant interaction, F(8, 538) = 1.66, p = 0.10. We conducted a simple main effect test, and the results showed that participants who played a PD game with a Japanese person were more likely to choose a competitive strategy in wave 2 than in wave 3 (t = 2.17, p < 0.05). The participants who interacted with a Japanese person were more likely to choose a competitive strategy in wave 2 than in wave 1, but the difference was not significant (t = 1.02, ns). Participants who played a PD game with a South Korean person were also more likely to choose a competitive strategy in wave 2 than in wave 1 (t = 2.22, p < 0.05); however, the difference between choices in wave 2 and wave 3 was not significant (t < 1). Participants who played with a Kenyan person chose a more competitive strategy in wave 2 than in either wave 1 (t = 2.59, p = 0.01) or wave 3 (t = 3.35, p < 0.001). In contrast, participants did not increase their competitiveness towards Americans and Russians in wave 2 in comparison to the other two waves. These results partially supported Hypothesis 2.

We further expected that nationalism would predict competitiveness towards foreigners, particularly towards Japanese and South Korean targets in wave 2 but not in waves 1 and 3 (Hypothesis 3). In contrast, we predicted that patriotism would not predict competitiveness towards foreigners in any of the waves (Hypothesis 4).

To test these two hypotheses, first, we explored the changes in nationalism and patriotism across the three waves. We recoded the reverse items and then combined the eight nationalism items into one scale and the six patriotism items into a separate scale. We conducted paired sample t-tests, which revealed that the participants' level of nationalism in wave 2 (M = 5.72, SD = 0.73) was higher than that in wave 3 (M = 5.46, SD = 1.04) (t(549) = 5.94, p < 0.001); however, their level of nationalism in wave 1 (M = 5.88, SD = 0.71) was also higher than that in wave 2 (t(551) = 5.86, p < 0.001). Similarly, the analysis of the patriotism measure showed that the participants' level of patriotism in wave 2 (M = 6.39, SD = 0.71) was higher than that in wave 3 (M = 5.84, SD = 1.22) (t(550) = 11.29, p < 0.001) and that their level of patriotism in wave 1 (M = 6.46, SD = 0.70) was higher than that in wave 2 (t(555) = 2.93, p < 0.004).

The findings that participants showed higher levels of patriotism and nationalism before (wave 1) than during the Olympic games (wave 2) are not consistent with previous studies that showed that the Olympic Games increase people's level of nationalism and patriotism (e.g. Billings & Eastman, 2003; Murata et al., 2006). The 12 May Sichuan Earthquake may possibly have inflated the participants' nationalism and patriotism in wave 1 because the earthquake was not only a disaster but also a threat to China and an occasion in which Chinese people were united to rescue and help fellow ingroup members who had been victimized by the earthquake. Research has shown that a threat to an ingroup can increase both the nationalism and patriotism of group members (e.g. Li & Brewer, 2004; Shamir & Sagiv-Schifter, 2006). Meanwhile, the preparation for and the promotion of the Beijing Olympic Games in the media may make outgroups and outgroup members salient, thereby eliciting intergroup comparison and ingroup identification; as a result, heightening nationalism and patriotism.

To test whether nationalism and patriotism predicted competitiveness towards foreigners (Hypotheses 3 and 4), first we checked the correlations between competitiveness, nationalism and patriotism within each wave. Results of the correlations in wave 1 (Table 3) showed that competitiveness towards Kenyans was significantly correlated with patriotism (r = −0.16, p < 0.04), such that the higher the level of patriotism, the more cooperative the participants were towards Kenyans. Results of the correlations in wave 1 further showed that competitiveness towards people from the other four nations was not significantly correlated with either patriotism or nationalism. Critically, however, results of the correlations in wave 2 (Table 4) showed that competitiveness towards Japanese and South Koreans was significantly correlated with nationalism, such that the higher the level of nationalism, the more competitive the participants were towards Japanese and South Koreans, suggesting that shortly after the Olympic Games, nationalism was related to competitiveness towards Japanese and South Koreans, supporting Hypothesis 3. Competitiveness in wave 2, however, was not significantly correlated with patriotism, suggesting that, as predicted, only nationalism, but not patriotism, was related to competitiveness, supporting Hypothesis 4. The results of correlations in wave 3 (Table 5) showed that none of the competitiveness was significantly correlated with nationalism or patriotism, probably because the effects of the Olympic Games had already dissipated.

Table 3.  Correlations between competitiveness, nationalism and patriotism in wave 1
 12
  • *

    p < 0.05;

  • **

    p < 0.01.

1. Competitiveness towards foreigners (N = 552)  
2. Nationalism0.05 
3. Patriotism−0.080.36**
1. Competitiveness towards Japanese (N = 107)  
2. Nationalism0.09 
3. Patriotism0.140.43**
1. Competitiveness towards Koreans (N = 63)  
2. Nationalism0.21 
3. Patriotism0.080.53**
1. Competitiveness towards Americans (N = 94)  
2. Nationalism0.09 
3. Patriotism−0.130.19
1. Competitiveness toward Russians (N = 112)  
2. Nationalism0.01 
3. Patriotism−0.110.44**
1. Competitiveness towards Kenyans (N = 178)  
2. Nationalism−0.06 
3. Patriotism−0.16*0.32**
Table 4.  Correlations between competitiveness, nationalism and patriotism in wave 2
 12
  • **

    p < 0.01.

1. Competitiveness towards foreigners (N = 552)  
2. Nationalism0.08 
3. Patriotism−0.010.42**
1. Competitiveness towards Japanese (N = 107)  
2. Nationalism0.29** 
3. Patriotism0.110.46**
1. Competitiveness towards Koreans (N = 63)  
2. Nationalism0.29** 
3. Patriotism0.070.56**
1. Competitiveness towards Americans (N = 94)  
2. Nationalism−0.02 
3. Patriotism−0.080.31**
1. Competitiveness towards Russians (N = 112)  
2. Nationalism−0.02 
3. Patriotism−0.030.51**
1. Competitiveness towards Kenyans (N = 178)  
2. Nationalism−0.02 
3. Patriotism−0.060.41**
Table 5.  Correlations between competitiveness, nationalism, and patriotism in wave 3
 12
  • **

    p < 0.01.

1. Competitiveness towards foreigners (N = 554)  
2. Nationalism0.05 
3. Patriotism0.040.80**
1. Competitiveness towards Japanese (N = 107)  
2. Nationalism0.08 
3. Patriotism0.080.77**
1. Competitiveness towards Koreans (N = 63)  
2. Nationalism0.17 
3. Patriotism0.080.60**
1. Competitiveness towards Americans (N = 94)  
2. Nationalism−0.12 
3. Patriotism−0.170.29**
1. Competitiveness towards Russians (N = 112)  
2. Nationalism0.10 
3. Patriotism−0.0030.67**
1. Competitiveness towards Kenyans (N = 177)  
2. Nationalism0.01 
3. Patriotism0.010.87**

Finally, we conducted a cross-lag analysis to determine whether prior nationalism and/or patriotism could predict subsequent competitiveness, or whether prior competitiveness could predict subsequent nationalism and/or patriotism (Fig. 1). Specifically, first, we used prior nationalism/patriotism (in wave 1 and wave 2) to predict subsequent competitiveness (in wave 2 and wave 3) after controlling for the prior level of competitiveness (in wave 1 and wave 2, respectively). We found that nationalism in wave 1 predicted competitiveness towards foreigners in wave 2 (t = 2.12, p = 0.03) after controlling for competitiveness in wave 1 (t = 7.17, p < 0.001). When looking at each of the target groups, nationalism in wave 1 predicted competitiveness towards Japanese in wave 2 (t = 2.09, p < 0.04) after controlling for competitiveness towards Japanese in wave 1 (t = 3.96, p < 0.001). However, contrary to our prediction, nationalism in wave 1 could not predict competitiveness towards targets from South Korea in wave 2 (t = 1.59, p < 0.12) after controlling for competitiveness towards South Koreans in wave 1 (t = 1.83, p = 0.07). As expected, the results also showed that nationalism in wave 1 could not predict competitiveness towards targets from other nations (i.e. USA, Russia and Kenya) in wave 2 after controlling for competitiveness in wave 1. Prior patriotism (in wave 1 and wave 2) could not predict any competitiveness in subsequent waves (wave 2 and wave 3, respectively). Moreover, both nationalism and patriotism in wave 2 did not predict participants' competitiveness in wave 3. These results might be due to that in wave 3 (3 months after the Games) national comparisons were less likely to be made without the comparison chance which the Games might have provided.

Figure 1.

Cross-lag panel model between patriotism/nationalism (P/N) and competitiveness.

In short, the findings from the cross-lag analysis revealed that nationalism predicted subsequent competitiveness towards foreigners, but the effect was limited to the period shortly before and during the Games. Moreover, we found that nationalism in wave 2 was significantly correlated with competitiveness towards Japanese and South Koreans in wave 2, and that nationalism in wave 1 predicted competitiveness towards Japanese in wave 2. Such a pattern was not observed after the Games in wave 3. These results, as a whole, partially supported Hypothesis 3 that nationalism predicted competitiveness towards foreigners, particularly towards Japanese and South Korean targets in wave 2 but not in waves 1 and 3.

Second, to test for the presence of a reverse causal relationship, we used prior competitiveness (in wave 1 and wave 2) to predict subsequent nationalism/patriotism (in wave 2 and wave 3) after controlling for the prior level of nationalism/patriotism (in wave 1 and wave 2, respectively). Results revealed that competitiveness in waves 1 or 2 could not predict nationalism or patriotism in waves 2 or 3, suggesting that competitiveness towards foreigners did not heighten nationalism or patriotism before or after the Beijing Olympic Games. Therefore, these results were consistent with Hypothesis 4 and mostly consistent with Hypothesis 3.

General discussion

Effects of the Beijing Olympics on competitiveness towards foreigners

As expected, the results of the present study showed that participants were more likely to choose a competitive strategy 2 weeks after the Games rather than 3 months before or 3 months after the Games. These results suggest that, in general, the Beijing Olympic Games intensified the competitiveness of Chinese towards foreigners. However, the intensified competitiveness did not last 3 months. The high level of competitiveness towards foreigners shortly after the Games may be due to national comparisons in the Games intensifying competitiveness towards the nations that are comparison targets for China and, further, because intergroup comparisons lead to intergroup competition (Munkes & Diehl, 2003). After the Games, without the constant highlighting of the national comparisons that occurred during the Games, the intensified competitiveness fell back to its original level.

Our results revealed that the participants chose a more competitive strategy in wave 2 than in wave 1 or 3 when they interacted with a Japanese or a South Korean. These results suggest that the Beijing Olympics intensified the competitiveness of Chinese towards foreigners, particularly the foreigners who were from nations which are the most relevant competitive targets for China. According to the results of the post-experimental study, Japan and South Korea are among the most relevant comparison targets for China. Among the five target nations, Japan and South Korea are perceived to be more salient competitors for China and, Chinese, in particular, do not wish that Japan and South Korea will do better than China. In national comparison situations such as the Olympic Games, Japan and South Korea may be more salient and more accessible to the Chinese than other target nations (USA, Russia and Kenya).

Beijing Olympics, competitiveness and nationalism

As expected, the results of the present study showed that competitiveness towards Japanese and South Koreans in wave 2 was significantly correlated with nationalism, such that the higher the level of nationalism, the more competitive the participants were towards Japanese and South Koreans. However, competitiveness towards Americans, Russians and Kenyans was not correlated with nationalism in all waves. These results suggest that nationalism could predict the effects of the Beijing Olympics on the competitiveness towards foreigners who are from nations which are the most relevant comparison targets for China. This is because nationalism is related to national comparisons, as nationalism is a belief that one's own nation is superior to other nations and should be dominant in the world (Kosterman & Feshbach, 1989). Nationalism has also been found to be related to the choice of a conflict strategy in intergroup interaction situations (Dittloff & Harris, 1996). Nationalism during the Beijing Olympic Games highlighted national comparisons, particularly comparisons with the most relevant comparison targets and, therefore, appeared to intensify competitiveness towards those foreigners who are from the most relevant comparison nations (i.e. Japan and South Korea) for China.

Beijing Olympics and competitiveness towards Kenyans

The present study showed that participants who interacted with a Kenyan chose a more competitive strategy shortly after the Games than 3 months before or after. Results further showed that the competitiveness towards Kenyans shortly after the Games was related neither to nationalism nor to patriotism. The Kenyan team surprised China as well as the whole world by winning 14 medals at the Beijing Games.2 The coverage of these medalists may have increased the salience of Kenya and, consequently, become a comparison target for China, thus intensifying participants' competitiveness towards Kenyans. However, Kenya and the Kenyan team's performance in the Games was hardly a threat to China, and might not have influenced the participants' perception of the status of China and Kenya. This is possibly why nationalism was not related to the competitiveness towards Kenyans.

Beijing Olympics and competitiveness towards Americans

The results of the present study indicated that the Beijing Olympics did not intensify Chinese competitiveness towards Americans, although the post-experimental study showed that Chinese participants compared China with USA most often. However, the results of the post-experimental study showed that Chinese participants did not view USA as being as competitive and hostile as Japan and South Korea. However, the performance of the American teams in all previous Olympics was better than that of the Chinese teams. The economic strength of USA is also greater than that of China. Therefore, comparing Chinese with Americans might be seen as an upward comparison that may be accompanied by the goal of self-improvement (e.g. Taylor & Lobel, 1989; Wood, 1989) which, therefore, may not lead to intergroup competition between China and USA, although China was perceived as a competitor by Americans after the Beijing Olympic Games (Rosner, Li, Chao, & Hong, this issue of the Journal). In the future, researchers should find it interesting to investigate whether upward intergroup comparisons lead to intergroup competitions, as well as whether the comparison between China and USA is for the Chinese an upward intergroup comparison.

Nationalism, patriotism, cooperation and competition

Although the Sichuan earthquake may have influenced the results of wave 1, our results from the three waves suggest that the Beijing Olympic Games heightened the nationalism and patriotism of the participants because the levels of these two variables were significantly higher 2 weeks after the Games compared with 3 months after. Of course, elevated nationalism and patriotism do not necessarily mean elevated cultural identification (Cheng et al., this issue of the Journal). Interestingly, we found that although both nationalism and patriotism were high shortly after the Games, their effects on international (intergroup) competition were different. Our results showed that nationalism was associated with the effects of the Beijing Olympic Games on Chinese competitiveness towards Japanese and South Koreans. By contrast, our results also showed that although the patriotism level of our participants was very high (M = 6.39, SD = 0.71), the patriotism level was not associated with the participants' competitiveness towards targets from any nation. These results are consistent with the concept that ‘ingroup love does not mean outgroup hate’ (e.g. Allport, 1954; Brewer, 1979).

Some studies have argued that patriotism is compatible with cooperation and tolerance of diversity (Kosterman & Feshbach, 1989; Li & Brewer, 2004). However, the results of the present study showed only limited support for this. We found that patriotism 3 months before the Games was negatively correlated with the participant's competitiveness towards Kenyans; that is, the higher the level of the participants' patriotism, the less competitive (more cooperative) they were towards Kenyans. The relationship between the lack of competitiveness towards Kenyans and patriotism could be due to participants thinking that China and Kenya should help each other because both nations are in difficult situations (i.e. earthquake and poverty). Therefore, further studies need to be done to identify whether and how patriotism can improve intergroup cooperation.

International relations and competitive effects of the Beijing Olympics

The results of the present study imply that international relations and general perceptions of specific nations (targets for comparison and/or competition) may be important in understanding whether the Chinese would become more competitive towards those national groups during the Olympics. Results of the post-experimental study showed that participants perceived the five target nations as comparison targets in different ways; in particular, they perceived that international relations between China and Japan or South Korea were competitive, and that the intergroup attitudes between China and Japan or South Korea were hostile. The Beijing Olympics may have exaggerated these perceptions of intergroup competitiveness and animosity. Therefore, the Olympic Games may elicit greater competitiveness towards nations which are already seen as competitors; and the increase in nationalism during the Olympic Games would reinforce this tendency.

Contributions and limitations

The present research was the first to use a longitudinal study to investigate whether and how the Olympic Games can influence international competition from an intergroup perspective. Our studies provided evidence that the Olympic Games can intensify international competition, particularly competitions between nations that are the most relevant comparison targets. The results indicated that the effects of the Olympic Games on international competition between the most relevant comparison target nations were associated with temporarily heightened nationalism. This study also suggested that the way that the Olympic Games influences international competition could depend on the relative performance of the target nations, as well as on the existing relations between these nations and the nation being studied, in this case, China. As such, this research has illustrated that intergroup processes do not occur in a ‘social vacuum’, an important contention espoused by Henri Tajfel (1981), a forefather in social psychology.

However, there are several limitations of this study. China was the host of the Beijing Olympic Games; thus, further investigation is needed to test whether our results apply to entrant nations. Also, in each wave, we had only one item to measure the competitiveness towards foreigners. Therefore, the present results regarding competitiveness need to be verified by other measures of intergroup competition in future studies. Another limitation of the present study is that we selected only five nations, which are the ones that were more likely to be comparative targets of China in the Games. Research in future Olympic Games could examine the generalizability of our findings to nations that are less competitive with the host or study country.

Implications: Improving international cooperation through the Olympic Games

The Olympic Games are organized as a national comparison between nations. National comparisons motivate people to make nation categorizations and positively differentiate their own ingroup from outgroups and, consequently, lead to national competition. Many procedures in the Games strengthen people's tendency to categorize the athletes by nation. For example, the athletes enter the Olympic stadium in national groups in the opening and closing ceremonies, and the flag and anthem of the winner's nation is honoured at the awards presentations. Although it is impossible to avoid national comparisons and competition during the Games, it is possible to weaken the emphasis on nation categorization. Categorization process is the basis for stereotyping, but recategorization (i.e. the formation of superordinate categories or cross-cutting categories) can reduce prejudice (e.g. Dovidio, Gaertner, Isen, & Lowrance, 1995; Hewstone, Islam, & Judd, 1993). Therefore, having the athletes enter the stadium according to their event category during the opening and closing ceremonies and raising the Olympic flag and playing the Olympic anthem at the award presentations may help to recategorize athletes, thus reducing national comparisons and competition, increasing tolerance towards foreigners, and improving international cooperation.

Acknowledgements

This research was partially supported by National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 70971127) to the first author, and partially supported by Collaboration Research Fund of Faculty of information and communication of Bunkyo University to the second author. We thank Drs Rhoda E and Edmund F. Perozzi for extensive English language editing and revision.

End notes

1. Participants were paid with a participating fee instead of the rewards in the PD game.

2. The Kenyan team won one gold, four silver and two bronze medals at the Athens Olympic Games.

Appendices

Appendix I: Measure of competitiveness towards foreigners

The following was presented to the participants, with ‘X’ replaced by Japanese, South Korean, American, Russian, or Kenyan in different versions.

You are going to play a game via the Internet with X whom you don't know. Neither of you will be able to communicate with each other during the game, nor will you meet in the future. The winner of the game will be rewarded. The rules of the game are as follows:

  • 1In the game, you and X will press key A or B simultaneously.
  • 2Your reward will depend on which key you and X pressed (please see the following descriptions and table for the details).
  • 1If you press A and your opponent also presses A, you will get ¥ 30 and your opponent will also get ¥ 30.
  • 2If you press B and your opponent also presses B, you get ¥10, and your opponent will also get ¥10.
  • 3If you press key A and your opponent presses key B, you will get nothing and your opponent will get ¥ 50.
  • 4If you press B and your opponent presses A, you will get ¥ 50 and your opponent will get nothing.
 The key you press
AB
  1. You do not know which key X will press. Under this circumstance, will you press A or B? Please circle the number that is consistent with your choice.

The key X pressesA1)You¥304)You¥50
Your opponent¥30Your opponent¥0
B3)You¥02)You¥10
Your opponent¥50Your opponent¥10

Appendix II: Measure of nationalism and patriotism

Nationalism

  • Chinese should be as active on the world stage as people from other nations.

  • I feel hurt and angry if the Chinese team loses in a sports event.

  • It is a tragedy if China lags behind other nations.

  • I feel very happy when Chinese perform excellently on the stage of international sports.

  • It does not matter to me if China loses in an international competition (reverse scored).

  • I hope that China will be a great power which does not lose to other great powers.

  • China should have a bigger say in the international society.

  • Competing with people from other nations does not make any sense (reverse scored).

Patriotism

  • I am proud to be Chinese.

  • I feel fortunate that I am Chinese.

  • I do not feel much attachment to China (reverse scored).

  • I love China.

  • It does not matter to me if China loses its culture and traditions (reverse scored).

  • The fact that I am Chinese is very important to me.

Ancillary