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Olympic athletes' body language is innate

August 11, 2008 |  2:00 pm

Olympics1The reaction of four American swimmers who finished second in a relay race at the Olympic Games over the weekend was intriguing. The silver medal clearly wasn't what these women wanted to take home. When the race concluded, the swimmers looked vaguely disappointed but showed little other emotion.

According to a new study, however, how people react to success and failure is an innate and biological mechanism that can sometimes be altered by one's cultural upbringing. Researchers at San Francisco State University and the University of British Columbia published a study today showing that pride and shame are expressed similarly across cultures. They compared the verbal and nonverbal expressions and body language of judo competitors who were sighted, blind and congenitally blind. The athletes who were studied participated in the 2004 Olympic and Paralympic Games and represented more than 30 countries. The study showed that winning athletes, both sighted and blind, across all cultures, tended to raise their arms, tilt their heads up and puff out their chests after winning. Losing provoked a universal expression as well: slumped shoulders and a narrowed chest.

The exception, they found, was that in North American and west Eurasian countries, the shame response was somewhat more muted, which could be due to a Western cultural norm of hiding one's shame.

Winning a silver medal is no cause for shame in my book. But perhaps the women's swim team was trying to swallow their disappointment. Watching an athlete's reaction to his or her performance is half the fun of watching sports. With two weeks of Olympic competition to go, do your own analysis.

The study was published in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

-- Shari Roan

Photo: The first gold medal of the Olympic Games in Beijing was awarded to Katerina Emmons of the Czech Republic in the Women's 10-meter Air Rifle competition. Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times.