Twenty-Something Science

Ranking the medal system

What separates Olympic losers from winners?

August 17, 2012

While everyone is figuring out how to fill their time now that the Olympics are over, and others are turning back to Netflix, this year’s summer games gave us many incredible memories of how far the human body can extend itself.

But what I am left wondering is what the athletes returning home think of their performances. I’m sure all are happy that they made it to the Olympics at all, but how do the top finishers feel about their performances?

The medal system of awarding a gold, silver and bronze may seem as old as Greece itself in its epic symbolism, but running for gold is a phenomenon barely older than a century.

In ancient Greece, Olympians were acknowledged for their extreme efforts and abilities with an olive branch. Talk about doing it for the love of the game. By 1896, the games began awarding silver medals (and a token olive branch) to first place finishers while second place got bronze. In 1900 they mostly gave out cups or trophies (lolz), and finally in 1904 the Olympics committee got it’s collective brain power together to realize that a lot of people win a lot of events, and medals are way easier to make than trophies (ok, I have no idea what the basis of their reasoning was, but it sure does seem logical).

But recently, there has been some back and forth about whether or not it’s time to change the medal system again.

Jason Goldman, at Scientific American, argues that third place medal finishers are psychologically less happy than silver medalists. This is because psychologically, people tend to base their feelings of success around their relative success to other people. When you win a silver, you regret not having won gold, but when you win a bronze, you feel more thankful to have medaled at all. (The true proof behind this theory lies in silver medalist Mckayla Maroney’s face).

But Ben Mathis-Lilly of Buzzfeed argues that this is completely silly — the medal system currently makes third-place finishers happier, and thus we are actually rewarding some people more for performing worse. Additionally, how many bronze medalists do you remember?  Likely not as many as people who came in first or second. Mathis-Lilly calls for a complete elimination of the bronze, stating that the silver is still important, because having a second-best competitor motivates the top runner to achieve more.

I find Ben’s argument to be a little aggressive — any athlete coming to the Olympic games is showing a remarkable feat of athleticism. And maybe finishing second, and not being happy with the performance, is the perfect inspiration to train even harder for the next four years. Anyway, with so many athletes dedicating their lives to the Olympics, it’s pretty important that we show our respect for their efforts in as many ways as possible. Doling out bronze medals seems fair compensation for such great entertainment and international camaraderie every two years.

And remember that in every race, there is a fourth place finisher, likely as upset as Lolo Jones.

About the Author

Susan E. Matthews

Susan E. Matthews is trading the hills of New Hampshire for New York City, as she comes to SHERP straight after graduating from Dartmouth College. As an environmental studies major, she worked in a biogeochemistry lab and traveled through southern Africa. She found her true passion, however, in writing for and ultimately being editor-in-chief of Dartmouth’s daily paper. SHERP provides a lovely solution to bridging her two interests, and she can’t wait to get back to the reporting side of journalism. Follow her on Twitter @_susanematthews


1 Comment

Eric Bowen says:

You made a small error in this sentence: bronze medalists are happier than second place finishers, not third.
“Jason Goldman, at Scientific American, argues that third place medal finishers are psychologically less happy than bronze medalists.”

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