Jul 23, 2021 - Sports

Exclusive poll: What the Olympics tell us about patriotism

Which countries’ athletes will you be rooting for in the Olympics?
Data: Momentive; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

For Americans, the Tokyo Olympics that officially begin with today's opening ceremony will be a test of what patriotism looks like in 2021.

The big picture: Americans who disagree on everything else will still be rallying around the same team, as a new Axios/Momentive poll makes clear. But they're sharply divided over whether athletes should use the Olympic stage to protest, with young adults more likely than older adults to approve of protests and less likely to feel pride in the U.S. flag.

  • In addition, the race for medals could take on a Cold War flavor as a large number of Americans root against China.
  • "Even if Americans view the Olympics as a sports event above all else, they have undoubtedly internalized some of the geopolitical drama of recent years," said Laura Wronski of Momentive (formerly SurveyMonkey).
  • More results from the poll will appear in an Axios deep dive on the Olympics on Saturday.

By the numbers: We asked Americans what they expect to feel when they see the Stars and Stripes fluttering in Tokyo, whether it matters if the U.S. wins the most medals, and which countries other than the U.S. they'll be rooting for or against.

  • 63% of Americans said they'd feel a "very positive" reaction when they saw the American flag displayed. But there's a big age divide. Over 70% of over-45s expect to feel that way, but just 39% of 18-to-24 year olds do.
  • Respondents in that younger age group were also far more likely than their older counterparts to support Olympic athletes taking stands on social justice issues, with 69% approving.
  • Overall, 49% of Americans disapprove of such protests vs. 47% who support them. But there’s a vast partisan divide — 79% of Republicans disapprove while 77% of Democrats approve.
  • Black (72%) and Hispanic (59%) respondents were also far more likely to approve than white respondents (40%).

Americans were also divided over whether they viewed the Games as a competition between athletes (40%), countries (19%) or both equally (37%).

  • Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of respondents (82%) said they'd be rooting for athletes from the U.S., findings that were fairly consistent across age groups and political parties.

Between the lines: That suggests the viewing experience for Americans of all stripes will be more similar than it might seem once the Games are refracted through social media, with divisive moments magnified.

  • About half of Americans said it was important to them that America take home the most medals in Tokyo, while the other half say it doesn’t really matter.

What we're watching: Nearly one in four Americans (23%) say they'll be rooting against athletes from China.

  • There's a pretty big partisan split: 34% of Republicans will be rooting against them, compared to 16% of Democrats.
  • Republicans are also far more likely than Democrats to root against athletes from Iran (34% vs. 14%), and somewhat more likely to root against Russian athletes (29% vs. 20%).

Americans are more likely to be cheering for neighbors and allies like Canada (39% for, 8% against), Mexico (30% for, 10% against), the U.K. (35% for, 8% against) and the hosts, Japan (27% for, 11% against).

  • In all cases, though, the most common response was "neither" for nor against, suggesting most Americans will be cheering for U.S. athletes and not against anyone.

Methodology: These data are from an Axios|Momentive online poll conducted July 14-18 among 5,169 adults ages 18 and older in the United States. Respondents were selected from the more than 2 million people who take surveys on the Momentive platform each day.

  • Data have been weighted for age, race, sex, education, and geography using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to reflect the demographic composition of the United States age 18 and over. The modeled error estimate is plus or minus 2.0 percentage points.
Go deeper