Home Ethics Beyond the Schadenfreude

Beyond the Schadenfreude


Sports are filled with moments when fans are thrilled, when winners are exalted, and when teammates are trusted. This, of course, is part of why we love sports – why we cherish and celebrate them – and why so many of us include them in our lives, on a fairly regular basis.

From a spectator’s perspective, technological advances and accessibility of information have certainly facilitated the increased availability of sports. And, let’s face it – we are fascinated by the spectacular. Understandably, sporting events featuring elite athletes can captivate our hearts and minds. In real-time, the Olympics certainly can do this – as they also lend an element of patriotism to our interest. In particular, this year’s Olympic Games are no exception in that regard. And, given that we have “bad guys” in the Olympics again – those to whom a needle seems to need a vein – we have all sorts of captured interest.

Supposedly though, some have said that there are only three things that actually really capture our interest. First, there is fire. You know – the fireplace. The bonfire. Forest fire. In sports, some of the best performances are characterized as being “on fire!” Yes, our interest is definitely captured by fire.

Secondly, is water – I mean, who doesn’t love a fountain? Or a river? Or the sea? Waves on the beach? Raindrops on the windowpane? Even a puddle – what kid can resist stomping in?

We even love the sound water makes – so much so that we’ve made only generally delightful words to describe them. The splash. The ripple. The crashing wave. The flush. Ok – fire and water. Those two are no-brainers. Perhaps also is #3…

The third thing that captures human interest is the news of other people’s tragedy. We may become acutely aware of the presence of this phenomenon when watching the Olympics. Yes, we are generally all patriotic, so we’re rooting for our country – but aren’t we also rooting for, then, the demise of others? Sure. Is this summarily like, schadenfreude? You know schadenfreude, right – the secret pleasure derived from the troubles or failures of others. Yeah – we do – we get that, that pleasure. Perhaps it’s easiest to live with when it is underdog schadenfreude. But still, at least in American culture, very few people don’t take at least some small pleasure from the misfortune of others. C’mon. Think about. Really. Be honest.

But somehow, the Olympics seem to transcend all that humanness, don’t they? There certainly is opportunity to set aside the schadenfreude, to get beyond the schadenfreude, and to appreciate the truly outstanding feats of human physical endeavor.  Though not even completed as yet, the 2016 Olympics have had so many great story lines – of daring dreams coming true, of long-standing records broken, and of the unbelievable – happening again and again and again – right before our very eyes. Yet, it is possible that the sheer, unvarnished humanity of the Olympics is what make them so enchanting. The struggle. The obvious pain. The raw joy of relief. Yes, these – these are all things we can all easily relate to.

So what do the Olympics teach us about how to get beyond the schadenfreude? I think, at the least, these three things:

    • We are all just as human as we can be.
    • Banging your head against a wall feels good – when you stop – but hard work still pays off.
    • The hardest job in all the world – is effortlessness – to know this is to appreciate, admire, and aspire for it.

By Dr. Rodney J. Blackman

Dr. Blackman is the Chair of Recreation Management at the United States Sports Academy, and can be reached at rblackman@ussa.edu.


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