Thursday, August 9, 2012

Success, failure and bronze medals

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Sitting at home, it seems obvious which are the best medals to get – gold is better than silver, and silver is better than bronze. But when you watch the faces of the athletes, both as their waiting for their scores and just after they find them out, it doesn’t seem that simple anymore.

Sure, everyone wants to win gold, even if they’ve never been to the Olympics before and it’s a huge accomplishment to simply be in the running. The gold medal is the dream that got them here in the first place, standing on top of the podium with tears streaming down their faces as their national anthem gets pumped in over the loudspeakers (hopefully accurately). And I don’t think there can be anything more agonizing than fourth place, knowing you came so close to recognition but going home empty handed.

With second and third place, however, things become more complicated. Half the time, the person who ends up with the silver medal always seems crushed, either trying hard to look blank for the cameras or openly weeping in what is definitely not joy. Third place, on the other hand, usually seems pretty thrilled, grinning for the cameras with equal measures of relief and delight. Sometimes it’s reversed – bronze medal winners are never happy when they fall from a higher spot, and some silver medal winners have been thrilled – but in general third place seems like a happier spot than second.

I think the difference is where the line was in the athlete’s head. For the bronze medalists, it’s behind them – they did just good enough to make it inside medal territory, and so they feel relieved and proud of themselves. For silver medalists, however, it’s in front of them – they didn’t quite do good enough to win the gold. Their success is technically bigger than that of the bronze medalists, but all they can see is the failure.

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