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The Boston Globe

Opinion

farah stockman

Supreme showing

Poland's Kamil Stoch celebrated his win in the men's ski jumping normal hill event.

Kai Pfaffenbach/REUTERS

Poland's Kamil Stoch celebrated his win in the men's ski jumping normal hill event.

DON’T TELL anyone, but sometimes, when I’m at the gym, I sneak a glance at the treadmill next to mine to see how many miles that other person is running. I love it when the Stairmaster tells me I’ve climbed as high as the Taj Mahal. But nothing feels better than when the machine orders me to punch in my initials because I’ve burned more calories than anyone else that week (except for a person called LHM).

What makes us so attuned to physical competition — even against rivals we never meet? What makes us get emotionally invested in games we aren’t a part of? Why do we fret about the fates of athletes we don’t know?

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Evidence suggests that our brains may be hard-wired for physical competitions because they tell us something about our place in the social pecking order.

A recent study suggests that winners of athletic contests feel more than pride at winning. They feel dominant over those they bested. Researchers at San Francisco State University used high-speed photography to examine the immediate reactions of competitors in Olympic medal matches in judo. In the milliseconds after victors realized they had won, they pumped their fists and puffed out their chests, postures associated with dominance. Losers tended to slouch and cover their faces — gestures related to submission and shame.

“People from all around the world did essentially the same configurations,” said David Matsumoto, a psychology professor who co-authored the study with Hyisung Hwang. “When you find people from many different cultures doing the same things, you start to think there is something fundamentally human about it.”

Stranger still, they found that victors from cultures where social status matters most — such as Eastern Europe or East Asia — made bigger displays of dominance than those from egalitarian societies. It shows that, on some level, winning in sports is about establishing oneself at the top of a social hierarchy. Victory gestures are an unconscious way to let everyone else know you’re the boss.

The role of sport may even go beyond humanity. Male chimpanzees charge one another, shake their fists, and yell during contests over who holds the highest rank. These displays of physical prowess rarely involve actual violence. The show of superior power — that one chimp could kill a rival if he wanted to — is enough.

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If sports are a nonviolent way to determine the social pecking order, then it explains why nations invest so much in the Olympic Games.

In 1936, Adolf Hitler used Germany’s hosting of the games as a chance to showcase the dominance of the Aryan race. (The four gold medals that Jesse Owens won that year proved just the opposite.)

In 1980, at the height of the Cold War, the victory of the underdog American hockey team over the Soviets seemed like a sign that the American way of life would prevail over communism.

“We beat the Russians!” enthused team captain Mike Eruzione, of Winthrop, who scored the game-winning goal.

The idea that victory in a physical competition is a sign of superiority itself dates back to the very first Olympic games. Ancient Greeks believed that winning athletes were simply born to be the best. Excellence came from a genetic link to the gods that ran through royal families. But as men of lower classes began to win the Olympic Games, people realized that hard work and training could attract the favor of the gods, even more than a noble background.

Philosophers, including Plato, began to use athletic games to recruit students because they understood that the self-discipline it takes to win such contests can translate into excellence in other areas of life.

“Attitudes about how Olympic victory was achieved changed along with social ideas about what it meant to be ‘the best’ as a person in society,” said Heather Reid, a professor at Morningside College who co-authored “The Olympics and Philosophy.”

There is something inherently meritocratic about everyone playing by the same rules, and all of us agreeing together to accept the winner as “the best.”

Still, as I climb imaginary mountains on the Stairmaster, I find it amazing that today’s computer-oriented society still obsesses so much over physical competition. I must admit that I don’t follow sports. But I sure wish someone could tell me: who the heck is LHM?

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.

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