The Olympic victory stance: the universal sign of pride or dominance?

Canadian Charles Hamelin took home the gold in the men’s 1500-metre short track speed skating event on Feb. 10. He tweeted this photo shortly after. Photo courtesy Twitter

TORONTO – His chest is puffed up, arms outstretched from the body with his hands in fists and sometimes his mouth is open in a wide grin. Does this look familiar to you?

According to scientists who study facial expressions and emotions, this is the victory stance. We saw it on Canadian speed skater Charles Hamelin moments after he realized he took home the gold, and it was the same with Alexandre Bilodeau, as he ran to the stands to hug his brother and family.

It’s a universal gesture, regardless of culture and customs. Instead, it’s spontaneous–an innate response to winning, feeling proud and dominant.

“It’s signifying this person is victorious. It’s establishing one’s status in a hierarchy of some sort and telling others we’ve made this achievement when others have not,” Dr. David Matsumoto, a San Francisco State University researcher, told Global News.

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“It’s not just something people put on and do – it’s human nature and a nature we inherited from other animals who do this also,” Dr. Jessica Tracy, of the University of British Columbia, said.

Matsumoto and Tracy both specialize in studying body language.

Tracy’s own research at UBC’s Emotion Lab has suggested that even judo athletes who are born blind show pride and shame through body language.

The 2008 study was the first of its kind – Tracy looked at athletes across 30 countries who participated in the 2004 Olympic and Paralympic Games. A photographer shot athletes during and immediately after each judo match, telling a story of their emotional response frame-by-frame in the 15 seconds after winning or losing a match.

Across the board, winners’ body language was coded the same way: arms raised high, head tilted up and chest puffed out. Defeat was also clear: chest hunched in, shoulders narrowed and head tilted down.

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“The fact that we found that finding among the congenitally blind does suggest that it’s likely to be innate. It’s hard to imagine how these people would have learned to display this response spontaneously in these particular situations,” Tracy said.

“I don’t think it’s a conscious response.”

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Sidney Crosby celebrates after scoring the matchwinning goal in overtime during the ice hockey men’s gold medal game between USA and Canada at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. (Harry How/Getty Images). (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

In studying animals, she sees the same response: monkeys, for example, will put on a “bluff display,” standing on two feet and upright.

“They look a lot like someone showing pride and they do it when they want to assert their dominance so it makes sense,” she said. Animals also have displays of submission – think of a dog crouching down, making himself look smaller.

Matsumoto says there’s more than pride going on, especially in something as high stakes as the Olympics. He says that pride requires more self-evaluation, to understand our own emotions about our success.

“There’s an element of aggressiveness,” he explained. Triumph is especially apparent in sports like judo where two people are going head-to-head. You’ve conquered someone or something and you’re showing it.

Photographs of Olympic athletes, used in Matsumoto’s study, show the contrast between expressions of triumph (left) and pride (right). (Photo courtesy San Francisco State University). Photo courtesy San Francisco State University.

“One of the biggest differences between triumph and pride can be seen in the face,” Matsumoto said.

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“When someone feels triumphant after a contest or challenge, their face can look quite aggressive. It’s like Michael Phelps’ reaction after winning the 2008 Olympics. It looks quite different to the small smile we see when someone is showing pride.”

Take a look at Michael Phelps after he wins in the Men’s 100m Butterfly Final in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images). (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Some of us are taught to be humble and not to flaunt, especially in some cultures. That’s all thrown out the window for the first few moments after a win, Matsumoto notes.

“After that, our social situations start to take over and we’re a good loser or a good winner.”

The Olympics are an optimal time for us to watch for body language, Matsumoto said. Remember the 2012 London Olympics and the U.S. gymnast with her notorious scowl after she won the silver?

Raw emotion is in all kinds of daily scenarios, Matsumoto says. Births, deaths, funerals, weddings, everyday social behaviour happens all the time. It’s just the Olympics is one of those optimal situations where the environment is controlled.

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“I see it everyday, all the time,” Matsumoto says of reading body language.

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