• Benjamin Millard

We love and hate the Olympics, but may not know exactly why

As a "middle power" country, Canada tends to enjoy the Olympic games. It's a chance to stand out and be seen on the World stage, and helps us rally around the tricky business of a national identity. So, when we looked at sentiments on Canadian Twitter around the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games, it's not surprising to see a strong, positive signal. What's interesting is how this signal is buffeted by very strong negative associations, raising the question whether it is this specific iteration of the games, or the Olympics overall that's in decline:

We searched out tweets related to #Tokyo2020 and #Olympics, and coded the relevant results with the Q.i. MAPPER. The results were plotted on a Q.i. HeatMap, which uses colour and distance to express the intensity and difference between various words we use to describe something. A simple heat scale from cool-blue to red-hot shows the intensity of association with various traits. The coloured "pie" underneath shows the broad relationships between 8 different types of traits. Negative words are displayed in the darker, outer band. Each coloured "slice" depicts groupings of thematically-related terms, positioned across from those with an opposite meaning. For example, in the yellow space we have the term "Exciting," whereas the green space contains "Quiet."

Many people were unable to give details as to why they love the Olympics, so we see the heat clustering in the central "core" of the Map from those who feel positively about the Games. This brings to light another interesting feature of the map, the Core. Given that the Map is built from the statistically-derived relationships between words, the Core is defined by those words that are most connected to other positive traits. This makes it the place on the Map for deep, lasting connections to Brands, Individuals, Organizations, and anything else that draws an emotional or cognitive response from us. We may not know exactly why we feel so good about something, but we know we like it when the emotions and thoughts we associate with it appear in the Core.

The other top positive attributes - Entertaining, Exciting, Trendy/Cool, Wonderful - give us clues as to how the Olympics came to occupy such a position in the Core. Often, though, these are reasons given after the fact; once our strong, positive response comes out we look for reasons why that may be so. For most people, though, it's pretty straightforward: "I love the Olympics; what do you mean 'why?' it's the Olympics!"

On the negative edge of the map, we see a similar phenomenon playing out. The top association "Not for me" occupies a centrally negative place on the map, a "negative Core," if you will. Many of those who don't like the Olympics to begin with are finding it easy to express themselves and fill in reasons for their negative perception. This would be very troubling in most situations, though it seems a lot of negative sentiment is legitimately driven by issues with this specific iteration of the Games, held during a pandemic. Pushing ahead with a mass spectacle can be "Dangerous." Other issues related to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) crop up - Untrustworthy (corrupt), Discriminatory - and are amplified by some problems specific to Tokyo 2020's organization committees. Other contemporary factors, like the worthwhile examination of social and economic inequality and discrimination are also influencing how the Games are seen in modern times. Taken together, the strongest sentiment appears to be that many on Twitter think we have bigger things to worry about at the moment. So, the games are "Not for me." Like those who love it, many feel they have license to just not like it based on fundamental flaws.

So what could be done to improve the overall perception of the Olympics, given the dynamics of the Q.i. Map? Let's look at some of the specifics:

A first step could be to start pulling apart why the games are so polarized between those who "love it" and others who feel it's "not for me." There are strong positive and negative sentiments in the yellow "Exciting" and red "Delightful" zones in need of balance with attributes in the brown "Reliable" and green "Decent" spaces. Efforts to highlight the health and safety protocols around Tokyo 2020 appear to have generated more negative than positive sentiment in this area, perhaps reminding people of the issues hosting an Olympics during a pandemic. So, falling back on the Games' heritage and traditions may be the better ideas to associate with the Olympics, and activate emotions like trust and respect.

Also missing is a balance to the negative orange "Influential" attributes. While the love is strong for the games, there's a lack of human connection. This is particularly apparent by the lack of heat in the purple "Relatable" zone. With most of the attention being paid to logistical issues and the risk to human health, people are not seeing the relatable struggles and achievements of the individual that are often central themes at the Olympics. Given that we're observing Twitter reactions at the start of the Games, this may not be surprising. Time will tell if the stories of the athletes come to overshadow the daunting challenges of getting them to the competition.

A great strength of the Q.i. Map is its ability to track changes in sentiment over time. Revisiting the Canadian Twitterverse closer to the closing ceremonies, or after a gold medal win, could yield very different results. By "subtracting" the heat of one map from another, we can see the different thoughts and feelings that have arisen. How do you think the Olympics are going so far? What will be the big changes between the opening and closing ceremonies? A lot can happen in an Olympic Games... Leave us a prediction in the comments below or on our social media feeds and we'll revisit Tokyo 2020 when it's all over to see how you did!

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