By Julie Iles 12/08/2016


This Olympic season Michael Phelps has been unmatched as the most decorated Olympian of all time, though there has still been media scrutiny surrounding his ‘glaring’ rivalry with Chad le Clos of South Africa.

Professor J Benenson of Harvard University
Professor J Benenson of Harvard University

Rivalries like Phelps and le Clos’ have been making a splash at Rio, and close attention has been paid to how athletes behave towards their opponents. A new study recently published in Current Biology, suggests bad sportsmanship between rivals is rooted in animal instinct.

By observing the behaviour of athletes after a professional sports match, Harvard University Professor of Psychology Joyce Benenson found moments of triumph or loss were very similar to behaviour she observed in the animal kingdom.

Benenson spent years studying the conflict resolution in groups of chimpanzees. Her curiosity in the subject was piqued after seeing male chimpanzees act relatively friendly to their rivals in the wake of a conflict. This contrasted with the cold-shoulder treatment she saw between female chimps after a fight. Benenson wondered if the same could be true in humans.

Benenson watched hours of online videos of the social interactions between athletes following professional sports matches to see how humans act in situations of conflict. The study looked at three years’ worth of videos of table tennis, badminton, tennis and boxing, altogether observing athletes from 44 countries.

Swimming with Sharks

You only have to look at Michael Phelps’ game face prior the 200-metre butterfly semi-finals to see why Benenson thought, despite the neat outcomes and clear rules, sport could be studied as a modern outlet for aggressive primal combat.

Phelps’ warm-up glare, seemingly aimed at le Clos, quickly went viral on the internet, becoming a trending topic on Twitter under the hashtag #PhelpsFace.
Phelps’ warm-up glare, seemingly aimed at le Clos, quickly went viral on the internet.

In 2012, Le Clos’ victory over Phelps in the 200-metre butterfly was one of the worst defeats in Phelps’ career, and shortly preceded his announcement he was retiring from swimming. The bad blood between the two didn’t last long; they still planned a shark-cage diving trip together in South Africa in 2013.

Some have said Phelps’ motivation to return to the sport was driven by the hope to avenge his loss to le Clos in 2012. At the warm-up for this year’s Olympic 200-metre butterfly, it was clear the rivalry had heated back up. Phelps’ mouth was scrunched into a tight frown as he stared intently at Le Clos, the man who edged him out of a gold medal in his signature event by five-hundredths of a second.

When Phelps won the 200-m butterfly this year by four hundredths of a second, it was the smallest margin in the event’s history. He raised his arms in triumph at the pool’s edge and beckoned into the air as if to encourage the thundering applause. In the next lane over, le Clos’ came to terms with his fourth place standing, which failed to get him onto the podium. The two embraced in the pool as le Clos congratulated Phelps on his win.

The Warrior Hypothesis

Benenson watched the videos on sporting events for hours, looking to see whether athletes gestured conciliatorily, or made physical contact with their opponents after the match. The results of Benenson’s study were the same regardless of where the athletes were from, or what sport they played—men were more likely to peacefully engage with their opponent beyond the obligatory post-match handshake than women—possibly because men more often value what they have to lose if the relationship goes south.

This idea was in line with the ‘warrior’ hypothesis, Benenson said, which says men have to work hard to patch up any hard feelings after a fight or risk being weaker as a team against future outside threats.

Testing Cooler Waters

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The world-wide doping situation has made Rio’s Olympic pool a prime location for athletes to settle the score.

In contrast to the heated rivalry between Phelps and le Clos, the waters between female swimmers, Lilly King of the USA and Yulia Efimova of Russia were much icier.

King and Efimova had never faced off before, but Efimova’s ties to the Russian doping scandal struck a nerve with King. Efimova tested positive for meldonium this past March, but was permitted to compete. Efimova was beaten by King, who said her win in the 100-metre breaststroke was ‘a victory for clean sport’.

Post-race, King impulsively splashed Efimova before swimming over to embrace teammate Katie Meili who came third, and otherwise ignored the silver-medallist. “I don’t think she really wanted to be congratulated by me at that point,” King said, “so I figured I should stay out of it.”

Benenson suggested traditional gender roles have shaped our response to conflict from far back in our evolution. “We believe that human social structure resembles that of chimpanzees in which males cooperate in groups of unrelated same-sex peers and females cooperate more with family members and one or two good friends who act as family,” said Benenson in a media release.

So if you’ve made a habit of noticing unsporting behaviour after Olympic matches this week, it could just be chalked up to animal instinct.