Going for Silver

What’s a Key to Victory in Sochi? Coming So Close to Defeat.

Is being an also-ran better than being a runner-up? Of course not. But maybe.

02.23.14 11:45 AM ET

When luger Erin Hamlin did it, she shrieked with delight. When downhill racer Julia Mancuso did it, she wore the American flag like a cape. When Matt Antione did it in the men’s skeleton, he pumped his fist in triumph. When the entire American figure skating team did it, there were hugs and kisses all around. “WE DID IT!!” pairs skater Marissa Castelli tweeted—having just, well, done it.

What did they just do? What made all of these athletes so ecstatic? Simple. They had all fulfilled the trickiest of American dreams: They had gone for Olympic gold and won … bronze.

Our none-too-shabby showing in the medal count this year is due primarily to our propensity to come in third. We hit double-digits in bronze before any country did so in gold. And one look (or rather, a dozen-plus looks) at the faces of the athletes who won those medals tells a joyful story; they are genuinely thrilled to pull up the rear, medal-wise. Smiles. Cheers. Skis, skates, and sleds held high. Compare that to the very famous (and very funny) “McKayla Maroney is not impressed” photo meme that spread during the London 2012 Summer Games, in which the tiny American gymnast looks hugely underwhelmed by her gigantic achievement. It was snapped just after a silver medal had been placed around her neck. Poor thing.

It’s all evidence for my counterintuitive theory, which I’ve long held and professed loudly at too many dinner parties every four years: Athletes would rather win bronze than silver. And the first-place smiles on the third-place finishers in Sochi prove that I win the gold for counterintuitive theories.

It makes no logical sense, I grant.  The bronze medal is, literally, a poorer medal. It is made of copper and tin, and is worth about four bucks. The silver medal is valuable enough that—spoiler alert—the gold medal is really just the silver medal hidden beneath a half-dozen grams of gold plating. Oh, and also? The bronze medal represents a less perfect performance than the silver medal in the event that these athletes have just devoted their waking lives trying to perfect.

But hear me out, people. 

While I thought this insight was my own novel and utterly unverifiable brainstorm, it turns out I’ve had scientific proof all along. I’ve had it for decades. After the 1992 summer games in Barcelona, scientists at Cornell University studied the faces of Olympians who had just won medals. According to witnesses who didn’t know the actual outcome, the bronze medalists were evidently more thrilled than those who crossed the finish line just before them. Comparatively, at least: The silver medalists were not impressed.

Why are bronze medalists so darn happy? Logically it’s irrational; emotionally it’s obvious. 

Emotionally, psychologically, silver represents coming “so close” to the thrill of absolute victory, without achieving it. Bronze represents coming “so close” to the agony of heartbreaking defeat, without suffering it. Placing first, second, or third is a statistic; winning or losing is a feeling. And these phenomenal athletes aren’t Vulcans; they’re Olympians. 

That’s why the American silver-medal winners in women’s bobsled, having been favored for gold, were pitied—while the bronze winners partied. That’s why snowboard-cross bronze medalist Alex Diebold was more than happy with the bronze, especially since it came four years after he went to Vancouver as a mere “board tech.” That’s why snowboarder Kelly Clark said, “I’m really happy to be walking away with a bronze medal”—even though she too was a favorite for gold.  “Walking away” is the key phrase; she knew she had slinked away with something that almost evaded her, and it felt good. (The exception that proves the rule might be Hannah Kearney, who was truly distraught that she had won bronze in an event in which, like Clark, she had previously won gold. Easy for her to say: She hadn’t won silver.)

Moguls specialist Heidi Kloser didn’t “walk away” with anything, medal-wise. She injured herself during a training run in Sochi before the Olympics even started and spent most of the opening ceremony in a wheelchair. But her immediate response to being unable to compete—“Am I still an Olympian?” she asked, moments after her injury—is born of the same emotion bronze medalists feel:  Am I still a medalist?

Clark and Kloser know intimately how pained they would be to do any less—to go home empty-handed, without a medal (bronze) or a monicker (Olympian).  Psychologists call this awareness of what might have been “counterfactual thinking.”  We may as well call it “YOLO”—you only lose once. For bronze medalists, getting a close encounter with the alternate universe works to their advantage. For silver medalists, not so much.

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The key to victory in Sochi? Coming so close to defeat. 

This is not to say that winning gold isn’t somewhat better—ask Sage Kotsenburg or Jamie Anderson, gold-getters in snowboarding. Or that being an also-ran isn’t far worse than being a runner-up—just ask Shaun White or Shani Davis, who failed even to medal in the events they were expected to win. But when the American men made a clean sweep of all three medals in ski slopestyle, be honest, who would you rather be--the guy who won (a victory in gold!), the guy who almost lost but didn’t (a nail-biter in bronze!) or the guy in the middle of the podium pack (a meh in silver)?

When the Dutch speedskating twins Michel and Ronald Mulder finished first and third in the 500m, their proud parents couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome: One son won gold; the other is an Olympic medalist. A third Dutchman (no relation) stood between them, a huge orange-clad (and now silver-draped) buffer standing right in the middle of their .15-second gap. Lucky them. Had it been a one-two result, could you imagine the sibling rivalry?

I’ve been reminded that Jerry Seinfeld, the gold-medalist in comedy, beat me to this observation long ago. “You win the bronze,” he said, “you think, Well, at least I got something. But you win that silver, that’s like, Congratulations! You almost won! Of all the losers, you came in first! You’re the number one loser.

The best that can be said of the silver—beyond it being a phenomenal achievement I can hardly fathom—is that that coming in second is a great motivator. Bronze is the medal you put on the mantle.  Silver is the chip you put on your shoulder.

It’s why Iago, passed over for a military promotion given instead to Cassio, became hell-bent on undermining Othello. It’s why John Adams, upon losing the first presidential election to George Washington, thereby becoming vice-president (that’s how it worked back then)—a gig Adams considered “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived”—vowed to get his day in the sun.  (John Adams was not impressed.) And it’s why, when the American ice dancing team of Davis & White came in second four years ago, they protested a little too much. "We didn't come away from the games disappointed with the silver,” Meryl Davis insisted. “It was the right color for us at the time." Maybe so. They won gold this week.

The campaign to name Canadian speed skater Gilmore Junio the flag-bearer for tonight’s closing ceremonies was inspired by Junio’s reportedly selfless choice to give up his spot in the 1000m skating final to his teammate. Supposedly he did so because he thought his teammate deserved the chance to win gold more than he did. But we know better. His teammate went on to win … silver.  Ugh.