Losing the Gold

For most Olympics viewers, winning a silver medal at the Games would seem pretty impressive. For the silver medalists themselves, however, their feat can be disappointing. Victoria Medvec, a psychologist, studied Olympians and found that bronze medalists are actually happier than silver medalists, who dwell on thoughts about “what might have been.” Bronze medalists are simply happy they made the podium at all. Medvec points to a 1996 Nike ad which sums up the disappointment many silver medalists feel: “You don’t win silver – you lose gold.” (HT: Marginal Revolution) [%comments]


Too true. It goes deeper than the podium though. In a race such as cycling or running where the field can have 100+ participants there are several good places to get; ones that seem satisfying, and other bad ones; placings that leave you feeling like you missed out. The good: 1,3,5,10,15,20. The bad: 2,4,6,11,16,21. In the first group you earned your spot on the podium, or top 5, or top 10, or top 15 etc. In the second group you lost the gold, missed the podium, missed top 5, missed top 10, 15, 20.

Mark Wolfinger

Silver and bronze medals are absurd awards.

You either WIN or you don't. It is a competition.

It's gold or nothing.


Well, "Second is always a very difficult position to be at. " It attracts no spotlight and a lot of criticism.

Ricky Bobby

If you ain't first, you're last.

David L

Great work Dr. Medvek, but Seinfeld beat you to it by about 12 years.

"...when you win that silver it's like, 'Congratulations, you *almost* won. Of all the losers, YOU came in first of that group. You're the number...one...loser. NO ONE lost ahead of you!' "


Jerry Seinfeld had a bit exactly about this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SyIl_iVTxy4 It's funny because it really is true.


These people are elite athletes. They train from a young age to be as good at what they do as they are. If they can make second place in an overall Olympic event thats an amazing feat in my opinion.

Paul Clapham

I was at one of the "victory ceremonies" for the 2010 Winter Olympics here in Vancouver, and I noticed that the bronze medal winners looked the happiest of all three medallists. Even happier than the gold medallists, I think.

But my study is a lot less well-organized than hers. Clearly more investigation is required.


That's the mentality that leaves me with no desire to watch any competition played at very high level. Just look at the result from the downhill race in the current games:
The first 15 (FIFTEEN) finished within 1 (ONE) second time. The difference between the gold and silver medalists is 7/100 of a second. The difference between the silver and bronze medalists is 2/100 of a second. Now, who really believes that the winner is so much better than the others that he gets the gold and the rest get nothing?


Yet, Kirilius, we can count on the favorites to actually win. They must be doing something better than the 15th place finisher, even though it's only a second difference.


Since there is a number 2, there is a number 1. Everyone can't be number 1, yes it frustrates. But life all gives a second chance

science minded

one thing about Social science, we can all be number one with a bit of effort. So with eventual loss, there is a real basis for mutual gain. Sorta reminds me of that talent show where singers compete. The winner does not get all. It seems that those who make the most of their opportunity to be in the limelight benefit in some way and sometimes more than the winner. Obviously, the aim is different in science. Nonetheless, there is a similarity. Sorta reminds me of Madonna. She understands how effective marketing can be of an idea and how to "work an audience." Einstein apparently had that talent as well. I learned from both as well as from my husband. He used to call himself "fanatical mechanical."


Lee, that's the thing. I am not sure the #1 does something better than #2. If you have a few hundreds of a second differene, to me that means nothing. Anything can account for that. That "anything" includes skill and practice of course but it also includes things like: what you ate/didn't eat last night; did you sleep well; is your aerodynamic suit 2 gramms heavier or lighter, did the wind blow stronger when your turn came to go downhill. We are talking about split seconds here.


Ricky Bobby for the win.


On the other side of the coin, Apolo Ohno was very happy to place second in the 1500m speedskate. Expectations seem to play a key role in someone's level of excitement at their final standing; these competitions don't happen in a vacuum. A favorite going in is surely to be disappointed at second, but an underdog or first time competitor might be content to be in the running. To one who foresaw immenent failure, relative success can be more thrilling than the win.


Gee, the incredible athletes who end #2 in the world are failures? That idea is so weird to me. What achievements they make, why try to denigrate them?

I agree with Kirilius that in many cases, there's no practical differences between the top finishers. A second or two doesn't change the accomplishment. Random chance would be just about as definitive.

Winner take all contests are absurdly reductive. There are some events where the top athletes are equally good and exchange first-place wins over a year or two, because life doesn't occur on a curve.


Watching how Evgeni Plushenko has dealt with his recent loss shows the kind of pressure athletes put themselves under, and the freak-out that can ensue when their own expectations don't match the outcome.

Once a person realizes their own excellence, it must be hard for some at the same time to realize the excellence of others.


I am little late in this game, but I've always wished there was a way to encapsulate the competition to show how the finalists got there. In other words, I also like competitions where there are multiple heat competitions. You know who the best are by then, and the final heat has the best, and it does not matter who wins the final heat (to me)


When I was seven years old, the Mets finally finished 9th in the then 10-team National League after having finished last every year up to that point - and all the adults around me got real giddy about it. That experience has stuck with me ever since.

If you finish last, you're a bum. Anything else, and you're not.