If you are an Olympic athlete and you don’t win the gold, taking the bronze may bring you more joy than winning a silver medal.
It seems counter-intuitive. Coming second, after all is better than coming third when it comes to sports rankings and bragging rights. And yet on an emotional basis, for those who miss the gold, bronze may be the medal that soothes the disappointment best, a classic study suggests.
The idea is that in the self-questioning internal dialogue every athlete goes through after a competition, a silver medalist is focused on what he or she could have done differently to have finished in first place. But a bronze medalist may be awash with relief at making the podium at all.
Quebec City’s Kim Lamarre, who won bronze Tuesday in women’s slopestyle skiing, said her goal was simply to make the final so she was thrilled when she ended up on the podium.
“This is surreal,” she said. “I have no words to describe this feeling. I am so happy.”
The idea that bronze may be more satisfying is explored in “When less is more: counter-factual thinking and satisfaction among Olympic medalists,” a scientific paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1995.
Counter-factual thinking is indulging in “what if? or ”if only“ thoughts. ”Thinking about what might have been,“ says Scott Madey, one of the authors of that paper. The first author was Victoria Medvec, who was at Cornell University at the time.
The research involved assessing the emotional reactions of silver and bronze medalists and it led Medvec and her coauthors to conclude that second place finishers are more likely to see their achievement as falling short, whereas bronze medalists typically compare themselves to finishers who missed the podium altogether.
Whether medalists compare themselves up — to the medal they missed — or look down — to the non-medal placements they escaped — can make all the difference in terms of how satisfied they are with the medal they earned, the authors concluded.
“So it drives different emotional experiences that are basically counter-intuitive,” says Madey, who teaches in the psychology department at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania.
Anyone who remembers the Calgary Winter Olympics needs only to think about figure skater Brian Orser and skier Karen Percy.
The former was the reigning world champion going into the 1988 Games and had been the silver medalist four years earlier. But Orser had daunting competition in American Brian Boitano, who skated his long program flawlessly. Orser bobbled a triple flip, narrowly losing the “Battle of the Brians” and looked stricken as he watched the elusive gold go to his rival.
Percy, on the other hand, exceeded expectations to make it to the podium twice during the Calgary Games — taking the bronze in the downhill and Super G competitions. She was all deep-dimpled smiles during her podium turns.
John Oesch is a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of management. He teaches the Medvec paper’s findings, which are applicable to the world beyond Olympic competitions, in courses on change leadership and business problem solving.
Oesch says part of what is at work here is the fact that humans are hardwired to avoid regret.
“So if somebody comes in third, they’re going to be joyful they got a medal. But they’re also going to be extremely greatly relieved — because what if you came in fourth?” he explains.
“They can taste the potential for regret and they’re just so relieved that they managed to get a medal. Because they’re not going to have to spend the next four years or maybe the rest of their lives regretting ‘Why did I eat that Big Mac last night when I knew I should have had spaghetti?’ or whatever.”
Oesch acknowledges that it does seem odd that the third place finisher can feel better than the person who comes second. After all, elite athletes do not push their bodies to the limit for years in pursuit of a bronze medal.
“But then those comparisons come in, right? And then they start thinking: ‘I only got this bronze by a couple of 10ths of a second and man oh man, am I ever relieved!“’ he says.
“They start comparing themselves with the fourth and fifth and sixth person. And a medal is a medal.”
There is no such solace for many silver medalists.
“Silver medalists do a lot of counter-factual thinking. They start phrases in their minds with ”if only.“ ‘Oh, if only I had let my fingernails grow.’ ... Ridiculous things that are counter to the facts. And that is what really, really brings them down,” Oesch says.
But every rule has exceptions and this theory does too.
Take for example Canadian figure skater Elizabeth Manley, the sweetheart of the Calgary Olympics. German Katarina Witt and American Debi Thomas — both skating to Bizet’s “Carmen” — were expected to battle for the gold. Manley was in line for the bronze but had struggled with consistency. It was never a given she’d be on the podium.
Manley delivered the long program of her life, slipping through to snatch the silver when Thomas faltered. There were no “what ifs” written on her ecstatic face that evening.
Mark Uphill, a professor of sport science at the University of Canterbury in Britain, says he’s not convinced that bronze medalists are generally happier than athletes who win silver. Uphill, who researches emotions in sports, thinks an athlete’s reaction will depend on his or her circumstances.
“A silver could reflect very different things to a young athlete who could have another three Olympics ahead of them, compared to a veteran who ‘similarly’ achieves a silver but who after a career of trying to win gold comes up ‘short’ again,” Uphill says via email.
“The athlete who gets a bronze after performing a lifetime best is likely to feel very different from a bronze medalist who, if they’d achieved a personal best, would be standing with a gold medal around their neck.”
If the counter-factual thinking theory is true, how long does this sense of bronze relief or silver dismay last? The experiments that produced the Medvec paper were based on short-term reactions, so they can’t answer the long-term question.
Clearly some athletes carry their “what if” feelings for a long time. Orser, now a successful figure skating coach, finally tasted gold — vicariously — at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, when his student Kim Yu-Na of South Korea took top spot in the women’s singles competition. As he celebrated her victory, he acknowledged there was a sense of long overdue redemption for him in her win.
The Medvec paper closes with a story about American runner Abel Kiviat, who was overtaken at the finish line in the 1,500 metre race in the 1912 Stockholm Games. In a newspaper interview given decades later, Kiviat — then 91 — reported waking up on occasion to remember the loss and wonder how it had happened.
Madey takes a more optimistic view, saying he thinks the experience of winning a silver medal — of coming up short — can be a powerful motivator that spurs athletes to work harder in pursuit of the gold.