Blind, Sighted Athletes Equally Proud

August 12, 2008
Lauren La Rose
The Canadian Press

In his voiceover used to open ABC’s Wide World of Sports, late sportscaster Jim McKay spoke of the program’s mission to bring viewers the “human drama of athletic competition,” captured with the infamous slogan “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

Such drama has already been laid bare for spectators and television viewers as the Olympic Games unfold in Beijing, with athletes celebrating successes and heartbreaking losses on the world stage.

As athletes with disabilities prepare for the Paralympic Games next month, a new study co-authored by a Canadian researcher suggests spontaneous signs of celebration in victory displayed by sighted athletes bear strong similarities to those of blind athletes who have never seen such expressions of triumph.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jessica Tracy of the University of British Columbia and David Matsumoto of San Francisco State University examined photos of 87 sighted athletes from 36 nations competing in judo at the 2004 Athens Olympics. The researchers also looked at images of 53 blind competitors from 20 nations in the same sport during the Paralympics that year.

All athletes were photographed during and immediately following each match.

The researchers found behaviours associated with pride, such as tilting the head back, extended posture and arms extended out from the body, were showcased among all cultural groups.

What’s more, similar spontaneous expressions of pride were observed among blind and congenitally blind athletes, who comprise 29 per cent of the overall blind athlete sample.

Since congenitally blind individuals have been unable to view others’ expressions from birth, the study authors said they could not have learned to produce expressions through modelling.

With the exception of tilting the head back, in the case of congenitally blind athletes, the expressions of pride were similar across the board among all athletes observed.

Tracy said the findings suggest there is likely an evolutionary link to expressions exhibited by humans.

“The interesting thing is that we’re seeing these things like extended posture and arms extended out from the body, these behaviours that make you look larger; they’re very similar to the dominance displays that are seen in other animals like chimpanzees,” said Tracy, an assistant professor of psychology at UBC.

“These behaviours are really quite reliably shown in all these different groups which is sort of, to me, pretty compelling evidence that what we’re talking about is a universal response to success and probably likely to be innate as well.”

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