Gold. Silver. Bronze. Paper?
Although every Olympic fan is well versed in the pageantry of the medal ceremonies for the athletes who place first, second and third in an event, few are familiar with the manner in which the International Olympic Committee is honouring the competitors who finish fourth through eighth at the Sochi Games.
It is not with a hearty handshake and pat on the back. It is not, as some athletes suggested (presumably jokingly), with a swift kick to the rear end. Rather, the near-medalists - and a few not-so-near-medalists - receive a personally inscribed, autopen-signed, formal Olympic diploma.
“It’s kind of like the one you get for participation,” said Mercedes Nicoll, a Canadian snowboarder who finished sixth in the women’s halfpipe competition at the Vancouver Games in 2010 and was given such a certificate. “It’s really nice. I mean, it’s not the same as medaling, of course. I know some athletes who win medals like to show them around to everyone, but I don’t do that. It’s a piece of paper. I think that would be kind of dorky.”
Nicoll, who added that she was surprised - and touched - when she received her diploma, is seemingly a rarity among athletes in that she knows about the diplomas at all. Most athletes and officials queried said they were aware of the various other certificates the IOC distributes - volunteers, committee officials and any athlete who makes a country’s Olympic team receive an embossed acknowledgment of their role in the games - yet admitted ignorance when it came to the diploma.
Steven Holcomb, a U.S. bobsledder, said he remembered almost everything about the four-man competition at the 2010 Vancouver Games. Holcomb, who piloted the United States’ sled to its first gold medal in 62 years, said the memory of the medal ceremony lingered gloriously.
But what about his sixth-place finish in the two-man event at Vancouver? Or his sixth in the four-man in 2006? Does he have fond recollections of the diplomas he was awarded for being milliseconds away from earning the title of fifth-best bobsled driver in the world?
“I honestly don’t even remember getting something like that,” he said. “Maybe they mailed it to me, and my mother has it? Or maybe they had the wrong address?”
This was a common refrain. Several athletes said that they never received a diploma or, if they did, that they had no idea where it was now. Others said they were handed the diploma by a member of their national organizing committee at some point after their competition was over. A few said they received the diplomas and appreciated the gesture, even if they did not totally understand it.
Rachael Flatt, a U.S. figure skater who placed seventh at the 2010 Olympics, said she had no recollection of receiving a diploma and wondered whether the diploma initiative was something new at the games.
“I wish they had done something similar for us,” she said.
In fact, despite the apparent delivery problems, diplomas have been awarded in some form or fashion since 1896, an IOC spokeswoman said. At first, only the winners of each event received them. In 1923, the practice was expanded to include the top three finishers. The group grew in 1949 to include the top six and by 1981 to include the top eight.
“A lot of the athletes have no clue they’re getting them,” said Bill Mallon, an Olympic historian. “The IOC sends diplomas to a lot of people. The Olympics has always loved protocol.”
Preparation of the diplomas is generally handled by a local printer who also works on other Olympic publications, like the newspaper distributed in the Olympic Village. The diplomas for medal winners have a gold-, silver-or bronze-hued background; the ones for fourth through eighth are plainer. All have signatures from the head of the local organizing committee as well as the president of the IOC.
Some national organizing committees make a more elaborate presentation of the diplomas - Nicoll said Canada had conducted small ceremonies in the past - while others simply place the diplomas in an envelope with other papers that each athlete takes home.
As with college diplomas, the value of earning one of these credentials is debatable. (One such diploma, though, was listed for $140 on eBay.) Shelley Rudman, a member of the British skeleton team, said she believed the diplomas were a generous reward and an incentive for countries that might not have realistic hopes of reaching the medal podium.
“It’s something for them to chase,” she said.
U.S. skier Picabo Street, however, said she had mixed feelings about the diplomas. Yes, she said, they are a lovely gesture. But she added: “If I finished out of the medals in a race, I didn’t need a kind word and a piece of paper. I needed someone to get in my face and say, ‘You skied terribly, so get back on the chairlift and go back up the mountain.’”
Holcomb agreed and, channeling Ricky Bobby, Will Ferrell’s racecar driver character in “Talladega Nights,” said: “I’m here to medal. If you’re fourth, you might as well be last.”
Both Holcomb and Street, who won a silver medal at the 1994 Olympics and a gold medal in 1998, allowed that their perspectives might be skewed by their success. But even those athletes who surprise with their diploma-winning performances do not necessarily seem to savor it the same way as one might a gold, silver or bronze effort.
After all, Nicoll’s sixth-place snowboard finish at Vancouver was one of her country’s two best finishes in the halfpipe, and it was her best showing at an Olympics. Yet when asked last week where she displayed her diploma, Nicoll shrugged.
“I’m pretty sure it’s in one of my filing drawers,” she said. “Do you think I should frame it?”