Eyes on the prize

The Arm-stretch 

As an athlete crosses the finishing line, you’ll often see them extending their arms sideways, as if they’re about to take off. Because this expansive action increases the apparent size of their body, it’s clearly a primitive dominance signal – giving the impression that they’re bigger than they really are. Equally, it looks like the athlete is about to clasp someone in a loving embrace. The Arm-stretch therefore conveys both an assertive and an inclusive message – it says in effect: “Look at how impressive I am, and share this moment of celebration with me!”

The Clenched Fist

A number of celebratory actions involve a clenched fist. First there’s the “Air Punch”, where the athlete thrusts their fist above them. Then there’s the “Fist Curl”, basically a static pose achieved by bending the arm, forming a fist and flexing the biceps. Finally there’s the “Fist Pump”, where the fist is jabbed up or forward, rather like a boxer delivering an uppercut or a blow to the chest. The Air Punch seems to be more common among track athletes, while the Fist Curl and Fist Pump are favoured more by field athletes and swimmers. All these actions are essentially power displays, ways of symbolically celebrating the defeat of one’s enemy. 

The Roar

Here the mouth is opened wide, the teeth are exposed and the athlete emits a mighty roar – not unlike the threatening actions of lions, tigers and gorillas. Some roars are extremely noisy while others are almost silent. However loud they are, roars are designed to release tension, which is why they feature so prominently in explosive field events such as javelin, discus and hammer, where athletes will often roar encouragement at their projectile long after it’s been released and is sailing through the air. But roars aren’t only a means of letting off steam; they’re also used as a victory celebration by athletes. 

The Smiling Face

Smiling is a universal human response to joy and happiness, which is why it’s so common among winners and so rare among athletes who feel disappointed. In spite of the powerful, positive emotions evoked by victory, gold medal winners don’t actually smile all the time. They’ll smile broadly as they step on to the podium and while they’re acknowledging the spectators’ applause, but they usually avoid doing so during the playing of the national anthem. In fact, at this point they’re more likely to start crying or to try to suppress their tears. 

The Surprise Face

When athletes don’t have high expectations but still manage to win, they’re likely to react with a facial expression of surprise – eyebrows hoisted up, eyes expanded and mouth opened wide. We were treated to a marvellous illustration of this during the 2012 London Olympics, when, having already won the 10,000m, 

Mo Farah completed the double in the 5,000m. If you look at the photograph of Farah’s face as he crossed the line, you could be excused for thinking he’d just seen a ghost, so intense was his expression of surprise. 

Another version of the Surprise Face was in evidence at the 2004 Athens Olympics, when Kelly Holmes stunned everyone, including herself, by winning the 800m. With several world-class competitors in the line-up – including Holmes’s remarkable training partner, Maria Mutola – there was every reason to expect someone else would take gold. But Holmes won the race convincingly. 

As she crossed the finishing line an unusual hybrid expression appeared on Holmes’s face: her eyebrows were up, her eyes were enlarged and her mouth widened 

into a massive smile. This was a “Surprised Smile” – showing that she was both horrified and thrilled to be the winner.  

Here comes the science bit There are a number of reasons why winners feel the need to perform a triumph display. One is the sheer release of tension that victory affords. Then, of course, winning provides a legitimate excuse to draw attention to oneself and remind spectators of one’s achievement. Finally, there is the primitive desire to lord it over opponents – to behave in an overbearing manner that makes you look unbeatable, and which hopefully discourages rivals from entertaining the idea that they could win next time round. In this respect, triumph displays may be seen as a special class of threat signals – a means of establishing a pecking order.

But what about the behaviour of losers? Well, for an athlete who has spent years training and expects to win their event, being beaten can be a shattering experience. You can see this very clearly in their body language. Immediately after defeat, you’ll often find the loser slumped down, sometimes even in a state of collapse. 

Whereas the winner celebrates by making himself or herself look bigger, with their head held high, the loser does the exact opposite – with head down and eyes averted, the loser tries to appear smaller and unimposing, even invisible. Differences are also evident in the face and eyes – whereas the winner’s face is usually animated and expressive, the eyes engaging, the face of the loser tends to be more deadpan and expressionless, with the eyes downcast or averted. Losers often appear blank because they’re trying to put on a brave face. In many instances, however, their true feelings are revealed in fleeting expressions of sadness, disgust and even fear. These contrasts are also physiological: while victory is often accompanied by a cocktail of feel-good hormones such as adrenalin, testosterone and endorphins, defeat frequently brings a dose of the anxiety hormone, cortisol. 

When Olympic competitors mount the rostrum to receive their medals, you’d expect to find the winner producing the most intense display of pride, followed by the people who came second and third, in that order. However, that’s not usually the case. Psychologists have made the extraordinary discovery that while the winner smiles more than the other two, the silver medallist often smiles less than the bronze. The explanation for this is that while the bronze medallist compares himself with all those who failed to make it on to the podium – and is overjoyed to be among the medals – the silver medallist engages in what psychologists call “counterfactual thinking”. The runner-up becomes preoccupied with “what if?” – what would have happened if only he’d got a better start, made a bit more effort, not got boxed in on the curve, or timed his sprint better into the finishing straight? With these sorts of questions bouncing around in his head, there’s very little room left for happiness or contentment. 

Although winners have good reason to celebrate, there are often hidden costs associated with victory. Chief among these is other people’s disapproval. If, for example, you’re the world champ and you’re consistently beating everyone else, you’re likely to attract envy and opprobrium. In order to diffuse the latent animosity that losers may harbour towards them, winners will often behave modestly, praising their opponents or minimising their own achievement. This helps to explain why gold medal winners are so quick to congratulate those who come second and third, and why they’re so keen to invite them on to the top step of the podium at the end of the medal ceremony. 

Not all winners, or for that matter all losers, behave so graciously. At the Moscow Olympics in 1980, Steve Ovett unexpectedly beat Seb Coe in the 800m. As they were standing on the podium, Ovett turned towards Coe, smiled and extended his hand. Coe cautiously took Ovett’s hand, but was unable to muster even the faintest smile. Describing Coe’s apparent reluctance to take Ovett’s hand, Clive James quipped that “it looked like he’d just handed him a turd”. 

Winners’ unbridled expressions of joy appear to be innate – they’re even produced by congenitally blind athletes who are disadvantaged when it comes to modelling their behaviour on the responses of others. Some triumph displays are culturally determined, being more prevalent in certain countries. Then there’s the new, theatrical breed of individual triumph displays – like Usain Bolt’s “lightning bolt” and Mo Farah’s “Mobot”. Such signature poses  have so far on­ly been used by athletes who are world beaters. It’ll be interesting to see whether it stays that way.

Dr Peter Collett is a leading behavioural psychologist.

Please play responsibly