Country First: The Olympic Games, Nationalism and the Ultimate Displays of Fandom

Fans cheer for Tim Baillie and Etienne Stott of Britain, not in picture, as they compete in the men's C-2 canoe double semifi
Fans cheer for Tim Baillie and Etienne Stott of Britain, not in picture, as they compete in the men's C-2 canoe double semifinal at the Lee Valley White Water Center at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012, in Waltham Cross, near London. Baillie and Stott won gold. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

Alongside our terrific sports management students, we have cheered with die-hard fans at the Super Bowl, celebrated with alumni at the NCAA Final Four, been awed by the throngs of dedicated gearheads at the Daytona 500, and pledged our allegiance to all things extreme at the X Games. In our Sports Experience Series of business and management courses, we have seen countless faces painted in team colors, hair shaven into team logos, and outfits that just make you scratch your head.

In the United States, our fans' passion ranks atop the worldwide sports charts. Or so we thought. Now we know that none of our experiences ever could have prepared us for some of the most-intense sporting events we have ever attended.

Even just an opening-round Olympic volleyball game.

This week, our travels through the Olympic Games here in London took us to Earl's Court, an historic London convention hall which has been transformed into an indoor volleyball arena. We were scheduled to enjoy a men's volleyball game between Italy and Poland. As luck would have it, three-quarters of the packed crowd were rooting for Poland, and we found that our seats were located right smack in the middle of a huge pack of these happy and excitable Polska fans.

These were fans who might not normally associate with each other at a sporting event, let alone share an embrace after an important point was won. Many of the fans wore the jerseys, hung banners and waved flags signifying their allegiances to their favorite Polish professional soccer teams, such as rivals Legia Warsaw and Wisla Krakow. But none of it made a difference to these fans. Between every single point, they rose together, cheered together, and sang together. And when Poland pulled out a thrilling victory, they celebrated together.

"A man may support this professional club or that club, but this does not matter now," says Daniel Rathke, 64, a retired teacher from Gdansk, Poland. "Today, for the next week, for all these Olympics, we are all from Poland. This is all that matters."

We have seen it throughout this capital city during these Olympic Summer Games. Flags from nearly every country in the world are flown all over town. Fans passing each other in the streets will call out their home countries -- "Allez France!" or "Viva Espana!" -- and wait for a nearby countryman to respond joyfully in kind. We even have seen the seemingly-impossible, ultimate display of fandom: Two fans, each wearing a jersey of bitter English soccer enemies Arsenal and Chelsea, exchanging high-fives at a race won by the host country.

"What I love the most about the Olympics is the passion of the fans," says 21-year-old Daniela Martino from Israel. "The spirit that people have for their countries is nothing like I have ever seen before."

In the United States, we speak of teams and their fans as if they are civic bodies of their own -- supporters of Boston's professional baseball club are "Red Sox Nation," the National Football League's Dallas Cowboys is "America's Team." This distinction vanishes at the Olympics. For each fan at the Games, there is only one team. Nationalism supersedes all leagues, all sports, all teams, all rivalries. For this Summer Games fortnight -- as with each new Olympiad -- fans from around the world lose sight of their established favorites and, instead, focus on country.

"This is a beautiful, once-in-a-lifetime experience," says Phil Silva, 41, from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. "I am honored that I can cheer on my country."

Students in Lynn University sports management's "Olympic Games Experience" class, currently in London for the Summer Games, contributed to this story. Follow Prof. Ted Curtis and Dr. Chad Barr on Twitter at @LynnUSportsMgmt and on Facebook at LynnSportsManagement.