Authors: Travis Scheadler, Alan Ledford, Ph.D.

Corresponding Authors:
Travis Scheadler
(937) 751-5799
6811 Oakland Rd
Loveland, OH 45140
Wilmington College

Alan Ledford, Ph.D.
(937) 481-2253
1870 Quaker Way
Pyle Box 1246
Wilmington, OH 45177
Wilmington College

Building a Wall: The Refugee Olympic Team & American Politics

In 2015, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that 10 athletes would make up the new Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio. The IOC formed the ROT to increase awareness for the refugee crisis and improve attitudes towards refugees. Google provided evidence that searches for “refugee” and other similar terms and phrases skyrocketed during the Olympic Games. The present study investigates the effect of the ROT on attitudes towards refugees. A two-way multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) analyzed the effects of the ROT and attendance at a refugee awareness event while another one-way MANOVA analyzed the effects of the Travel Ban. The lack of significant results stemming from the ROT media intervention may indicate that the ROT was not effective in changing attitudes towards refugees. Media toward the Travel Ban and the U.S. presidential election in 2016, however, may have had an impact as support for the Travel Ban was significantly related to prejudice, symbolic threat, realistic threat, empathy, and altruism. Although the ROT was meant to counteract negative media, the negative media may have been framed as more important than the ROT. These findings provide important data for further sport-for-peace interventions.

Keywords: refugee; Olympics, Travel Ban, sports media

In October 2015, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced 10 athletes that would participate on the new Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) during the Summer Olympic Games of 2016 in Rio de Janeiro (Rio 2016). Thomas Bach, President of the IOC, explained, that these refugees had no team, flag, anthem, or home that united them, and the IOC wanted to raise awareness for them and other refugees. Bach argued that the ROT:

…will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis. It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society. These refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit (26).

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Filippo Grandi, added that the ROT was formed to counteract the negativity associated with refugee status. This initiative emphasized the positive contributions made by refugees in hopes of humanizing refugees and in silencing any negativity (9). The purpose of the present study is to evaluate the effectiveness of the ROT in changing attitudes toward refugees.

The Refugee Crisis and Development of the ROT
As of August 2016, 65 million people in the world were refugees (2), which makes 1 in 113 people in the world a refugee (33). Such refugees often flee their homes because of violence, war, environmental degradation, deprivation, fear, political ideology, and/or economic insecurity (24). Often times, refugees are killed before they escape the country or are killed during their escape—killed by other people, nature (i.e., drowning at sea), illness, or hunger and/or thirst. Even after they flee their hometowns, their paths to safety is often dangerous.

Refugee camps, however, have not always had satisfactory conditions. For example, many camps are established at inactive and deserted army bases, factories, airports, resorts, supermarkets, and sports arenas that do not support the abundance of refugees at the camp (33). In his memoir, Lomong, who is from South Sudan and is now an American, recounted on his own experience as a refugee; Lomong noted that him and the other refugees at Camp Kakuma would be given food rations once per month and then given the food waste of the United Nations’ employees (39).

Despite conditions at refugee camps improving since Lomong was there, they are still not ideal. To help support refugees, the IOC created a $2 million fund for National Olympic Committees (NOCs) to provide aide towards refugee interventions using sports (25). Shortly thereafter, the IOC created the ROT to raise awareness for the crisis and to inspire other refugees to persevere. Critics, however, argue that the formation of the ROT was just a media effort for Rio 2016 to have more attention (24). Regardless of the intention, it may have left a positive impact.

Perceived Impact of the ROT
Prior to Rio 2016, the IOC started advertising the ROT. The Refugee Nation, an international non-governmental organization, believed that it would help if refugees had something that would unite them rather than the standard Olympic flag and anthem that all Olympic athletes got to share. Rather, the Refugee Nation created a flag and anthem specific to the ROT to serve as an international symbol that no matter what they go through, refugees are humans and deserve a home that unites them too (67).

Throughout Rio 2016, the attention on the ROT inspired people all around the world to finally recognize, at minimum, the existence of refugees, an exponentially growing population (18). This recognition, the same article argued, is the start of the world understanding that the world is more than “just a collection of nations” (18, para. 3) and that each individual’s life matters regardless of their national identification. The IOC was successful in raising awareness for refugees based on positive attributes (i.e., perseverance, resiliency, and courage), but people still do not welcome refugees into their home countries (18). This commentary is limited, though, in not being research-based.

Finally, Google experienced an all-time high of word searches for refugee during Rio 2016 (44). Google, however, quickly experienced a 15% decrease in word searches for refugee, bringing it back to the previous rate, after the conclusion of Rio 2016 (44). Therefore, the ROT may have raised awareness for the refugee crisis, but only during Rio 2016 and not after its conclusion. This decrease could also be because viewers already searched the term and learned what it was, potentially nullifying the need to search for it again.

Attitudes Towards Refugees
Viewers may have respected the ROT athletes’ bravery, but remained unwelcome to accepting them (18). Even scientific research has reported negative attitudes towards refugees from various populations (11, 13). The media, in Australia at least, exacerbates these attitudes by presenting refugees as large groups that threaten the community and/or nation’s security (10). The media often does this by also exacerbating the stigma attached to other factors. For example, the media is quick to investigate if a terrorist had any ties to mental illness (56) or religion (35).

People, like the media, are quick to link refugees with mental illness, religious affiliations, and terrorism (55), worsening attitudes towards each group (19) and individuals with heightened fears of terrorism are more prejudiced towards refugees (49). Australians who are more prejudiced towards refugees are more likely to believe refugees are a realistic and symbolic threat to them (58). This fear of refugees and fear of terrorism may combine to exacerbate each other and to reinforce other prejudicial beliefs associated with the two. For example, individuals with more prejudicial attitudes towards refugees are more likely to blame refugees and other immigrants for their own economic distress (68) and are more likely to believe that they receive unfair benefits and treatment (40).

Individuals with prejudicial attitudes are more likely to have stronger nationalistic pride (45, 48, 74); believe immigrants are to blame for most crime, stealing jobs, and hurting the economy (17); and presume immigrants as incompetent, cold, and needy (21). Additionally, individuals who have harsher social attitudes also have a higher belief in a just world for others (abbreviated as BJW-others; 6, 70) and BJW-others leads to defensiveness, vengeance, and the belief that disadvantaged others (i.e., refugees) deserve their fate (e.g., homelessness, hunger, etc.) (e.g. 41, 69).

American Politics
The 2016 U.S. presidential election took part in exacerbating such attitudes toward refugees. News reporters tried to pick up every little thing that each candidate said in relation to any topic. Most notable, former Republican Party candidate and current U.S. President, Donald Trump, spoke out on issues related to immigration and refugee status. For example, Trump proposed to build a wall to prevent illegal immigration from Mexico and to require all Muslims to be included in a registry (1, 12). Throughout the duration of his election campaign, violence towards American Muslims tripled and many perpetrators honored Trump after partaking in the violence (34). To epitomize President Trump’s attitudes towards refugees, he proposed Executive Orders No. 13,769 and later No. 13,780, famed as the Travel Ban. Although both propositions were quickly halted by federal judges, the Travel Ban prevented travel to and from Iran, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Chad, North Korea, and some parts of Venezuela, predominantly Muslim areas associated with refugee traffic.

The media usually represents refugees as dangerous, mentally-disturbed criminals, reinforcing viewers’ negative attitudes towards refugees. Furthermore, the media rarely depicts refugees as humans, but instead as objects (53). Such dehumanization practices seemingly justifies prejudice and can even worsen discrimination (53). These dehumanizing practices are especially prominent after significant events such as the September 11 attacks (32). Humanizing refugees, on the other hand, allows viewers to relate to them and see them as people rather than objects (23).

Humanizing refugees can be done through highlighting their personal stories—a concept the IOC capitalized on in an attempt to raise awareness for the refugee crisis. The IOC’s use of focusing on the positive contributions of the ROT centered on empathy and inspiration in an attempt to decrease prejudice and increase altruism. While empathy decreases prejudice (3), art that depicts nature increases empathy towards nature and pro-environmental attitudes (14). Therefore, stories of refugees may increase empathy towards refugees and simultaneously enhance positive attitudes towards them.

Hopeful stories can also increase grit and resiliency (73). Assignments that focus on understanding the content and provides examples of grit can also increase grit (46). Such stories, like that of the ROT athletes, often provides inspiration to increase empathy amongst outgroups, but it does not inspire other members of the ingroup (59), defined by the other members that one identifies with opposed to the outgroup, members that one identifies as the other. This may indicate, though, that development of the ROT may have inspired others to help refugees.

Inspiration, an external energy that suggests motivation (51), has two components: being inspired by and being inspired to (72). Being inspired by involves illumination and does not imply action while being inspired to includes the motivation that moves one to take action. Exposure to positive examples, such as that of the ROT, can increase inspiration and positive motivations (22, 31, 38, 42) and is positively correlated with self-determination and optimism (71). Therefore, exposure to the ROT may increase positive motivations such as altruism along with optimism, among other positive characteristics.

Framing Theory
The key, though, to ensuring that exposure to the ROT yields positive results is to show the ROT in a positive light. The Framing Theory (20) argues that how a message is framed to the audience impacts how the audience responds. When the media, for example, portrays refugees as evil Muslim terrorists with mental health issues, viewers think refugees are evil. Theoretically then, since the IOC focused on the positive characteristics such as perseverance and bravery of refugees, viewers should be more inclined to think refugees are generally good. Multiple hypotheses were derived from this concept.

Because the IOC and the media present the ROT using positive qualities such as perseverance and bravery and positive stories increase inspiration, positive motivation, empathy, and grit, we predict the following:

  • H1: Individuals with exposure to media on the ROT will have higher levels of inspiration,
    grit, optimism, altruism, and empathy.
  • H2: Individuals with exposure to media on the ROT will have lower levels of prejudice.

Additionally, symbolic threat, the idea that an outgroup’s opposing morals, values, attitudes, and beliefs are a threat to the ingroup (65), increases prejudice (8, 16). Likewise, realistic threat, the idea that the outgroup directly threatens the physical, political, or economic lives of the ingroup (7), also increases prejudice (28, 57, 62, 66), even moreso than symbolic threat does. Due to the aforementioned studies and their respective findings, we suspect the following:

  • H3a: Individuals with exposure to media on the ROT will have lower levels of symbolic threat, realistic threat, and BWJ-others.
  • H3b: Individuals with exposure to media on the ROT will be less likely to support President Trump’s Travel Ban to and from Iran, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Chad, and North Korea and some groups from Venezuela.

Finally, in light of the proposed Travel Ban, we ask the following:

  • Q1: How does support for the Travel Ban relate to attitudes toward refugees?

A survey was administered to 76 college students (N = 20 males; 55 females; 1 other; Mage = 20.04). Half of the students read two articles (43, 50) and watched two videos (29, 43). The articles and videos are press releases from the ROT during Rio 2016. The same students took the survey immediately after reviewing the press sources. The other students did not review any media sources to analyze the effects of the media on the ROT.

The survey consisted of self-report questions that requested basic demographics which included whether or not the respondent attended the Westheimer Peace Symposium, an annual conference hosted by Wilmington College. The theme for the 2017 conference was “Welcoming the Other” with specific references to refugees. This demographic item was used to evaluate whether or not attendance to the Westheimer Peace Symposium or its specific sessions impacted the other measures. Another demographic item consisted of a 7-point Likert type item (1 = Strongly Disagree; 7 = Strongly Agree) that measured how strongly respondents agreed to President Trump’s famed Travel Ban.

Grit. Grit, or passion and perseverance (15), was measured with the Grit-short scale (Grit-S; 15). The Grit-S had four items that measure consistency of efforts (e.g., “I often set a goal, but later choose to pursue a different one”) and four items that measure perseverance of efforts (e.g., “I finish whatever I begin”) on a 5-point Likert-type scale where 1 = Not at all like me and 5 = Very much like me. The two subscales can be combined and averaged for an overall measure for grit.

Inspiration. Inspiration was measured with the Inspiration Scale (71). The scale had four items (e.g., “I feel inspired”) and two questions with each item (frequency and strength of experience) on a 7-point Likert-type scale (1 = Never/Not at all; 7 = Very often/Very strongly or deeply).

Optimism. Optimism was measured with the 10-item Life Orientation Test-Revised (54). The items (e.g., “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best”) were measured on a 5-point Likert-type scale (1 = I agree a lot; 5 = I disagree a lot).

Prejudice. Twelve items on the Prejudiced Attitudes Survey (64) were used to measure prejudice. Each item was a single word used to fill in the blank on a 10-point Likert-type scale (0 = No hatred at all; 9 = Extreme hatred). Example items included “hatred” and “superiority.”

Symbolic & Realistic Threat. Symbolic and realistic threats were measured with a revised (from “Asian immigrants” to “refugees”) 15-item questionnaire that has seven items that measure symbolic threat (e.g., “Refugees will undermine American culture”) and eight items that measure realistic threat (e.g., “Refugees will not displace American workers from their jobs”), each on a 10-point Likert-type scale (1 = Strongly Disagree; 10 = Strongly Agree) (66).

Belief in a Just World. BWJ-others was measured with the Belief in a Just World-Others subscale (37). Eight items (e.g., “I feel that people get what they deserve”) were measured on a 6-point Likert-type scale (1 = Strongly Disagree; 6 = Strongly Agree).

Empathy. Empathy was measured with the 16-item Toronto Empathy Questionnaire (60). Each item (e.g., “When someone else is feeling excited, I tend to get excited too”) was measured on a 5-point Likert-type scale (0 = Never; 4 = Always).

Altruism. Altruism was measured with an adaptation (75) of the Self-Report Altruism Scale (52). The scale consisted of 14 items (e.g., “I would give directions to someone I did not know”) on a 7-point Likert-type scale (1 = Very Unlikely; 7 = Very Likely).

Means, standard deviations, and Pearson’s correlations for all variables can be found in Table 1. Many significant correlations were found. For example, prejudice towards refugees was negatively correlated with inspiration, empathy, and altruism and positively correlated with symbolic and realistic threat and support for the Travel Ban. The Travel Ban was also negatively correlated with empathy and altruism while it was positively correlated with symbolic and realistic threat and BJW-others. See Table 1 for a complete list of correlations.

Table 1

After correlations were analyzed, a factorial two-way multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was conducted to test the effects of the condition and attendance at the Westheimer Peace Symposium. There was not a statistical significant model for the condition, F(11, 62) = .510, p = .868; Wilks’ Λ = .917, partial η2 = .083. There was not a statistical significant model for the attendance at the Westheimer Peace Symposium, F(11, 62) = .528, p = .877; Wilks’ Λ = .914, partial η2 = .086. Finally, there was not a statistical significant model for the interaction between the condition and attendance at the Westheimer Peace Symposium, F(11, 62) = 1.326, p = .232; Wilks’ Λ = .810, partial η2 = .190. Therefore, none of the hypotheses were supported.

A second one-way MANOVA was analyzed to test the effects of support for the Travel Ban. To do so, the variable for support for the Travel Ban was recoded into an ordinal variable (1 = Does not support; 2 = Neutral/No stance; and 3 = Does support). There was a statistical significant model for support for the Travel Ban, F(20, 128) = 3.207, p < .001; Wilks' Λ = .444, partial η2 = .334.

Analysis of post-hoc Tukey’s Honestly Significant Difference (HSD) tests determined that support for President Trump’s Travel Ban increased prejudice by 1.49 points compared to opposition for the Travel Ban, p = .001. Support also increased symbolic threat by 1.59 points compared to opposition, p < .001, and 1.01 points compared to neutrality, p < .005. Neutrality also increased symbolic threat by .58 points compared to opposition, and was only barely insignificant, p = .057. Support also increased realistic threat by 2.34 points compared to opposition, p < .001, and 1.43 points compared to neutrality, p = .01. Additionally, support decreased empathy by 5.37 points compared to opposition, p < .05. Finally, support decreased altruism by .73 points compared to opposition, p < .005, and neutrality decreased altruism by .75 points compared to opposition, p < .005.

The purpose of the present study was to evaluate the effectiveness of the ROT at improving attitudes towards refugees. The increase in Google searches (44) notes that the ROT successfully raised curiosity about the refugee crisis, and then suggests that the curiosity increased awareness of the refugee crisis. However, did the ROT successfully improve attitudes towards refugees?

The hypotheses in the present study were not supported, indicating that the ROT did not have an effect on attitudes towards refugees. However, the average prejudice score was low and the average scores for empathy and perceived symbolic and realistic threat were all near the middle. College students have a low level of prejudice toward refugees without experiencing substantial empathy for them. Perhaps the way the media and politicians frame refugees lead to some level of perceived threat, but their increased education protects them from experiencing prejudice.

The media in the past 20 years may have interfered with the experimental design of the present study as a confounding variable, though, because of the enhanced focus on terror attacks (35) and associating terrorism with Islam, mental health issues, and refugee status (56). In addition, with the exception of the media on the ROT, the media rarely depicts refugees as suffering, yet valuable individuals (53). The media, therefore, frames refugees to appear as dangerous and unstable groups of people, especially since the beginning of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The media unsurprisingly focused much of its attention to the 2016 U.S. presidential election throughout the entire cycle which began in 2015 and occurred simultaneously with Rio 2016. The media did their best to capture and broadcast each word from all of the presidential candidates. In particular, Trump was in the media spotlight and remains to be in it throughout the present study. With the increased focus on Trump before and during his term in office, the media may be framing his words and behaviors to seem more important than other stories (e.g., the refugee crisis and the ROT).

Many reporters and researchers claim that Trump increased Islamophobia during the presidential race when he spoke out about the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis (1, 12). The Syrian refugee crisis hit major headlines during 2015 and 2016 after their civil war took the lives of an estimated 11.5% of their population (36). In 2016 alone, 363,348 people from Syria and other war-torn areas in the Middle East fled across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe for safety and 5,079 others died during their attempt to flee (27). When the crisis hit headlines, political leaders around the globe were concerned about immigration, making it an even more important issue during the 2016 presidential race. Trump responded to terrorist attacks and the refugee crisis by suggesting that the U.S. should close its borders to all Muslims, American Muslims should be placed on a registry, and mosques should be shut down (1, 12). Trump and his administration (after he was elected and took office) has even compared opening the borders to refugees to “a national suicide” (61, para. 1) and “a vicious cancer” (30, para. 6).

Furthermore, Trump’s comments about refugees may have inspired prejudice and discrimination against refugees. Prior to the election cycle, there were only two anti-Muslim attacks in the U.S. in 2015. After Trump announced his campaign, though, anti-Muslim attacks tripled for the rest of 2015 (34) and encompassed one-third of all violence in 2016 (47). Trump and his team, then, may have played a role in influencing violence toward refugees and other immigrants. Specifically, some perpetrators identified Trump as their inspiration (34, 47).

Upon taking office, one of President Trump’s first actions included what is famed as the Travel Ban (Executive Orders No. 13,769 and No. 13,780). The Travel Ban came shortly after President Trump declared that “Islam hates us” (55, para. 1) and that the U.S. needs a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the [U.S.]” (47, p. 4). Federal courts, however, have blocked both versions of the Travel Ban, arguing that they are unconstitutional.

Although the media advertised that the Travel Ban was blocked, they simultaneously advertised the prejudice towards Muslim refugees which may have an impact on attitudes toward refugees. In fact, news coverage of incidents such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the drowning of refugees include such dehumanizing language that viewers also dehumanize refugees (32), which may make it more difficult to experience empathy for refugees. The present study tested the effects of supporting versus opposing (and versus having no stance) the Travel Ban. Results indicate that support for the Travel Ban is associated with increased prejudice toward refugees and perceived symbolic and realistic threat of refugees and decreased generalized empathy and altruism. Interestingly, having a neutral stance on the Travel Ban is also associated with increased perceived symbolic and realistic threat of refugees and decreased altruism. On the other hand, opposition of the Travel Ban is associated with decreased prejudice and perceived symbolic and realistic threat and increased empathy and altruism.

The Travel Ban stemmed from the perceived fear and misinformation of refugees (47). Because the Travel Ban attempted to exclude a specific population from American society and because the media notoriously portrays this population as evil and unpredictable (56), Americans perceived symbolic and realistic threat from refugees. The impact of the media to affect attitudes and for people to blame others for economic hardships, for example, is not a new phenomenon (68). Furthermore, because realistic and symbolic threat are typically precursors of prejudice (58), and because prejudice is negatively associated with empathy (3), it is not surprising that support for the Travel Ban is associated with increased prejudice and decreased empathy. Finally, because empathy is theorized to be a precursor to altruistic behaviors (4, 5), it is not entirely surprising that the Travel Ban decreased altruism.

Although the IOC adapted the suggestion to incorporate personal narratives to humanize refugees (23), media coverage of the presidential election throughout Rio 2016 and the recent coverage of President Trump and the Travel Ban may have counteracted the effects of the media coverage of the ROT, even though the ROT was meant to counteract the negativity associated with behaviors, attitudes, and actions such as the Travel Ban (9). Despite the attempt to change attitudes toward refugees, the American media may have done more to frame refugee intolerance as more important than the ROT. This framing effect may have adjusted American attitudes to be congruent with what American viewers perceive as the most important and most truthful news.

Although support for the Travel Ban affected prejudice, threat, empathy, and altruism, it is noteworthy that, on average, the college students studied did not support the Travel Ban. Even though the present study found no significance in the effects of the ROT, the present study is limited in that it did not consider the effects of the media on the presidential election or the Travel Ban in the execution of the methodology. The study is also limited because data collection occurred over a year after Rio 2016 rather than coincide with it. In addition, a convenience sample of college students was used rather than a more representative population and most respondents were female. Nevertheless, the present study provides significant evidence for the effects of support versus opposition for the Travel Ban. Furthermore, the lack of significance for the effects of the ROT may indicate that the ROT was successful in raising awareness for the refugee crisis, but not successful in changing attitudes towards refugees.

Future research should continue to investigate the effects of the ROT on public attitudes. It would be interesting to see how media coverage on the ROT interacted with media coverage on other topics (such as the U.S. presidential election and the later Travel Ban) to change attitudes towards refugees. In addition, future studies should be sure to study a more representative sample. Content analyses should also be conducted to determine the coverage of the ROT, especially compared to other Olympic teams and to other social events (e.g., the U.S. presidential election). Finally, other studies should also explore how other sport interventions are used to change attitudes towards refugees and other special populations.

Although one of the goals for the ROT was to counteract the negativity surrounding refugees, the data suggests that the media on the ROT only raised awareness for refugees and did not improve attitudes toward them. However, support for the Travel Ban yielded significant results in relation to attitudes toward refugees. For example, support for the Travel Ban was associated with increased perceived symbolic and realistic threat and prejudice and decreased empathy and altruism. Therefore, the media may have framed, consistent with the Framing Theory, media on President Trump and the Travel Ban as more important than media on the ROT, minimizing the effects of the ROT. Future studies should further investigate such relationships.

Sport for Peace is a growing field of interest in areas of sports studies. One goal of inclusive sports is to decrease prejudice and other negative attitudes and discriminatory behaviors. However, the media on the ROT may not have been powerful enough to change attitudes. Therefore, sports media on Sport for Peace interventions should include more media coverage on personable stories on refugees and other disadvantaged populations. Such coverage should be certain to emphasize the positive characteristics of refugee athletes and their positive contributions to sport and society. Additionally, the coverage needs to especially be framed as more important than the negative stories surrounding refugees, a task that the media seemingly failed to accomplish with the ROT.

The researchers would like to thank Dr. Audrey Wagstaff for her inspiration to perform a study on the Refugee Olympic Team and for connecting the authors to conduct the study. The researchers would also like to thank the anonymous reviewer(s) for their great suggestions and continued support.

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