Opinion: underdog stories touch something deep and universal in the human psyche 

Everyone loves an underdog tale in sports, right? Long shot teams or individuals defying all predictions and becoming quick fan favourites has a universal appeal in sports. Most sports around the world have well-known and revered underdog stories. Think Leicester City winning the 2015/16 Premier League, 17-year-old Boris Becker becoming Wimbledon champion as an unseeded novice in 1985 and Offaly's unlikely victory in 1982 denying the Kerry footballers an unprecedented five All-Ireland titles in a row.

From RTÉ Archives, Mick Dunne's commentary on Seamus Darby's dramatic goal for Offaly against Kerry in the 1982 All Ireland Final. "Seamus Darby has got it. He has got the goal.A goal, a goal!"

But what is behind the fascination with underdogs? What are the qualities that make them so endearing? At what point do underdogs lose their appeal? While not all sporting successes are underdog stories and not all underdogs are successful in their endeavours, underdog stories touch something deep and universal in the human psyche.

In a general sense, underdogs are defined as disadvantaged parties facing advantaged opponents and unlikely to succeed. This can range from athletes competing at Olympic level to politicians vying for election. Underdog or top dog status can be established through past successes (or lack thereof), by examining available resources (finance, facilities etc) and social context.

Underdogs inspire us with their extraordinary struggles and ability to triumph over them. Similar to George R. Goethals and Scott T. Allison’s explanation of how fictional superheroes are constructed, underdogs experience at least three different types of struggle. Firstly, the origin story of the underdog features great pain and hardship. Stories about Leitrim’s Lory Meagher Cup win recounted how Iraqi-born Zak Moradi arrived as refugee in Carrick-on-Shannon aged 11 without English and become a champion. 

From RTÉ 2fm's Jennifer Zamparelli Show, Zak Moradi talks about his journey from Iraq to playing hurling for Leitrim at Croke Park

Secondly, all underdogs have a unique weakness or Achilles heel that renders them vulnerable and finally, underdogs encounter exceptionally difficult obstacles that they must defeat. We become captivated and inspired by underdogs whose struggles in these three areas reveal great resilience, character, and accomplishment.

Annalise Murphy’s bid for Olympic glory epitomises the struggles and triumphs of the underdog. Following her heart-breaking fourth-place finish in London 2012 after a blistering start to the women’s sailing competition, she claimed silver four years later with a superb display in Brazil. This was the 31st time in Olympic history that an athlete/athletes climbed the podium at the Games representing Ireland. 

Sport can challenge strongly held expectations about order and predictability. On paper, teams with the most resources get the best players, and the bigger, stronger, faster teams should beat the smaller, weaker, slower teams. But as we know, it does not always work out that way. Sometimes what we know to be true is turned on its head, an upending in the natural order of the universe, and this disruption to expectations can create an outpouring of emotions. It seems obvious that at least part of the appeal of watching an underdog is the possibility of witnessing something rare, of introducing a little safe chaos into an otherwise predictable world.

From RTÉ 1's Nine News, Annalise Murphy given a hero's welcome at her home sailing club in Dun Laoghaire after the 2016 Olympics

A perfect example of overcoming struggles unexpectedly is the Greek national soccer team’s success at the 2004 European Championships. Ten years after losing every game without scoring a goal at the 1994 World Cup, Greece qualified for only its third ever major tournament. Clear underdogs in their group next to hosts Portugal, Spain and Russia and without a single international star, Greece rode extraordinary discipline, fitness and stout defence all the way to the final. 

Unexpected outcomes also have greater emotional impact than expected outcomes. The Irish women’s hockey team’s surprise progression to the World Cup final in 2018 warranted praise for such an achievement given the limited resources available to them.

Stated differently, people should get more joy from unexpected successes than expected ones, and conversely they should experience more pain from unexpected than expected failures. Take the 2018 hurling championship for instance, where it was assumed that Offaly’s relegation from the Liam MacCarthy Cup would be rectified the following year with prompt promotion to the pinnacle of hurling. Their fate now rests in the Christy Ring competition in 2020. In short, people believe that relative improvements are more likely than relative declines in performance. Hope springs eternal.

From RTÉ 2fm's Game On, pundit Michael Duignan responds to criticisms of Offaly hurling

The appeal of underdogs often comes down to our identification with them. In their struggles, we see our own struggles. If underdogs are likeable because people identify with them, it stands to reason that highly competent, advantaged teams risk losing sympathy from others because they are unrelatable.

How might an exceptionally competent or advantaged team such as the current Dublin senior football team or Manchester City increase their attractiveness to neutrals? Without delving into the controversial topic of tackling the exceptional financial resources available to them, the simple answer is by committing a blunder. Making mistakes humanises people and bringing teams down a peg, it seems, can enhance likeability. The Irish rugby team’s disappointing Six Nations campaign in 2019 brought an end to a run of 12 home victories and the heavy loss to England was labelled by team boss Joe Scmidt as a "reality check".

An important stipulation of underdogs in sport is that people’s love for underdogs is limited and qualified by several factors. First, we tend to give underdogs our support only when their fate has minimal impact on us or others. For this reason, we are more likely to pull for underdogs in a neutral context when it has less far-reaching consequences such as in a competition in which our country is not participating.

The psychology underlying underdog support goes well beyond rooting for sport and has implications for deeper understandings of injustice and morality

Secondly, we only show love for underdogs when they expend maximum effort to perform at their highest level. When underdogs are perceived to be coasting, we switch our allegiance to the top dog. Finally, underdogs appeal to us the most when they have an unlikely—but not impossible—chance to prevail.

The definition of underdogs contains two elements: low expectations for success and disadvantage. When people root for underdogs, they not only want them to succeed, but they feel it is right and just for them to do so. The psychology underlying underdog support goes well beyond rooting for sport and has implications for deeper understandings of injustice and morality. Underdogs pursue their goals knowing the long odds against them and the appeal of underdogs lies not in their outcomes so much as in their spirit.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ