Thrill Of Victory

Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings celebrate winning their third Olympic gold medal in Women's Beach Volleyball on Aug. 8 in London. (Getty Images / August 10, 2012)

When the Olympics end on Sunday, a few of us may find ourselves wondering why we've devoted hours to watching them. Why do we watch even sports about which we know little or nothing?

Take the equestrian events, water polo and fencing. I love the strength and beauty of the horses and the grace of their riders. And I really do admire people who are skilled in anything aquatic. As for fencing, it can be exhilarating to observe those artful parries and thrusts. But watching any of those sports when they're not part of this quadrennial clash of conquerors has little appeal for me.

So, why do we watch these Games?

For one thing, the summer Olympics come along only once every four years, so it's a rare opportunity to witness greatness. For another, it's an escape, even if only for a few minutes, from the cares of our day. Well, for many, from something else, too. As columnist Frank Deford wrote at SI.com: "The Olympics are always scheduled in our election year, which gives us two weeks off from the eternal campaign." Who couldn't use that? Even I, who must follow politics for a living.

Watching the Olympics has become a global ritual with national pride at stake, even in Earth orbit. The crew of the International Space Station has three Russian, one Japanese and two American astronauts. One of the Americans is of Indian descent and the other is Puerto Rican. That means athletes from five countries are being cheered by them.

Sure, I always want Team USA to come home with the most medals, and I'll follow the progress of the Olympians with Connecticut ties. But no matter what the sport or which country's athletes are competing, I will watch. If it's an unfamiliar sport, I listen to the commentators to learn as much as I can, but I will stick with it to the end.

It is worth noting that the Olympic Games also bring us together because we share what psychotherapist Gail Welkes calls "the ultimate view of diversity." In her blog "The Psychology of Television," she writes, "Most of us can put away our opinions of the world and see athletes, many very young, in a venue where cultural differences are embraced, not questioned." The Olympics, then, have the power to change us, even if only incrementally, and that is a very good thing.

Of course, there is the entertainment value. The Games provide an amazing spectacle. We know that whenever we tune in, we are going to be treated to thrills and chills and performances that often rise to the level of magical. We marvel at Olympians' perseverance and precision. We cheer their victories, because we recognize the dedication and devotion that was required to put them on a path to the mountaintop, where a golden treasure awaits.

And when a particular game or event is underway, we really get into it. Do you ever notice how your muscles tense while watching the action? Have you ever caught yourself moving your arms and legs, or shuffling your feet, in sync with whatever moves they're making? How about gritting your teeth to help them get to the finish line first? When they win, we all bask in their glory, and that is good for us. "Research shows that on the day after a team's win, people feel better about themselves," writes University of Massachusetts psychology professor Susan Krauss Whitborne in Psychology Today.

Maybe the biggest reason we make time to watch the Olympics is because it is has all the elements of what we have come to know as "reality TV." We get the personal stories, the family background, the tales of bad health or other challenges that have had to be overcome. OK, who they're dating, too.

But reality TV at bottom is about competition. Losers and winners and the thrills along the way. The intrigue, intense rivalries and dramatic twists and turns. All keeping us on the edge of our seats. What's better than that?

Al Terzi is co-host with Laurie Perez of "The Real Story," the current-issues program that airs Saturdays at 9:30 a.m. on FOX CT.