For Women, Sports Is A Crying Game Biology, Upbringing Produce Tears Of Joy, Pain, Relief
They’re as far apart in style and spirit as their hometowns. But Tara Lipinski, Michelle Kwan and Lu Chen finished their Olympic performances with nearly identical moves last month.
By bursting into tears.
The top three women skaters who calmly landed up to seven triple jumps left the rink in Nagano weeping, sobbing and covering their faces with enough emotion to shush even announcer Scott Hamilton.
It was great television - and great biology: as much a part of being human and female as the ability to breast feed, a tear researcher says.
Crying is a natural response that alleviates stress, says William H. Frey, a biochemist and national authority on crying. He believes tears release the chemicals produced by stress, much like exhaling releases excess carbon dioxide or urination excretes urea.
While anyone from figure skaters to EMTs can handle great pressure by focusing on the task at hand, once that distraction ends “emotions can overcome you,” says Frey, of the Dry Eye and Tear Research Center at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minn.
At the “Kiss and Cry area” at the rink in Japan, skaters spontaneously wept “a mix of joy, immeasurable satisfaction and relief,” says sports psychologist Jim Bauman of Washington State University.
Other athletes cried, too, from the first gold medal winner of the Games - cross-country skier Olga Danilova - to the victorious United States women’s hockey team. Men like Japanese ski jumper Masahiko Harada cried, too.
But overall, women cry more often and more obviously than men, researchers say, which may explain why the top three male figure skaters didn’t. Not Canadian Elvis Stojko, who buckled with a groin injury, or a disappointed Todd Eldredge, who skated off with his hands on his hips.
Part of it is social conditioning. Part of it is hormones - specifically, prolactin, which stimulates breast development and permits the female body to produce milk.
Until about age 12, boys and girls have the same levels of prolactin and cry about the same amount, Frey says. After puberty, prolactin levels are 60 percent higher in females.
That’s when scientists can measure a difference in breasts, tear glands and how frequently people cry.
“By age 18 women are crying four times as often as men,” Frey says.
Females, from Olympic athletes to rats, have anatomically different tear glands than males do, he says. Female crying is more obvious, too. Men’s eyes water, women’s tears are more likely to be flowing.
Frey points to an Italian study that showed that without prolactin, mice developed no difference in tear glands. Other researchers suggest testosterone also is involved in regulating tear production.
Scientists still are trying to understand how those hormonal differences affect crying frequency, Frey says.
Clearly the stress that Olympic skaters face is enough to trigger an immediate and intense crying response.
Dr. Jim Loehr, the sports psychologist who worked with speedskating great Dan Jansen, says that for athletes, an Olympic performance represents thousands of hours of training since age 3, untold sacrifices, injuries and failures.
“This is the one event that can erase all the hard times and sacrifice and confirm you’re worthy of this opportunity,” says Loehr, chief executive officer of LGE High Performance Specialists, a mini-Olympic training center for top athletes in Orlando, Fla.
Skaters, like wrestlers, gymnasts and other individual athletes, also bear particular burdens. They perform alone. Their attire is revealing. They appear without protective gear such as a mask, helmet or padding that can provide psychological protection, as well, Bauman says.
Skaters also have just a tiny window of opportunity - a two- or four-minute program - that can decide career success or failure. There is no second half to recover. There is no seven-game series.
And, focused as they are on becoming best in the world, they are nearly one-dimensional, their life centered on that moment.
“They’re fighting for their psychological survival out there,” Loehr says. “If you had to perform precisely or die, you’d see a similar reaction.”
Tears of relief, immediate grief or celebration also attract fans. People follow sports to be moved by the joy and sadness athletes feel, psychologists say.
“Sports is a wonderful laboratory for all human emotions,” says Marj Snyder, a sports psychologist consultant with the Women’s Sports Foundation in East Meadow, N.Y.
Snyder knew who won the U.S.-Canadian women’s hockey game. Nonetheless, she skipped a morning at work just to see the moment when the U.S. team threw sticks in the air, jumped into a pile and, yes, cried with joy.
“That’s the moment we all anticipate and look forward to when watching sports,” she says.
So why do so many of us tear up just watching at home?
Possibly timing. People cry the most between 7 and 10 p.m., when they tend to be more fatigued, with their loved ones and when, not surprisingly, they’re watching movies or TV.
But people also cry when they see others doing it, simply out of sympathy and empathy.
“When we see someone else cry it gives us permission to cry,” Frey says. He says that’s one reason many men say they don’t like to be around women who are crying.
In fact, Frey found the easiest way to get someone to cry is to show them another person who is crying.
Researchers used movies that showed people crying - “Brian’s Song” and “The Champ” - to collect tears. The best tear-producing movie: “All Mine to Give,” with Glynis Johns and Cameron Mitchell, the true story of an immigrant family in which the parents die, leaving little children to find homes to survive.
Loehr found watching the skating performances at the Olympics almost too painful, especially because Kwan, 17, and Lipinski, 15, are so young to face such enormous pressure.
“Put any adult you know in that situation, and they’d go to their knees in an instant,” he says.
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