It’s that breathless feeling of crossing the finish line; not quite knowing if you’ve won the race. The loud, pounding of your heart, the heaving air rushing into your lungs; all that culminates in that final instance.
And then, you hear your name in the announcer’s voice. The moment of triumph, the moment of truth; knowing you’ve won it. That shiny, sweet medal, about to hang right around your neck.
Now, what medal do you think you just won?
The vast majority of you might say Gold. A couple stragglers for Silver, maybe a squeak here and there. A few for Bronze.
But in the end, you probably won’t care what place you get. After all, you just medaled at the Olympics, right?
However, some may not be as happy as you think they might be to make it onto the podium.
According to a study by psychologists Victoria Medvec and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University, and Scott Madey of the University of Toledo, it actually appears that Silver Medalists are pretty sad after winning their medals.
The researchers took video footage of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics’ medal ceremonies and showed them to undergraduate students, as well as footage from the athletic competitions immediately following announcements of the winners. They were then asked to rate the happiness displayed by each of the medalists on a 10-point scale, with 1 being “agony” and 10 being “ecstasy.”
Their findings found that, on average, silver medalists scored a 4.55, and the bronze medalists scored a 6.4.
Even personally, as a competitive athlete, I can say that the medals I hold close to my heart often surprise me. The medals are not all the shiny colour of golden victory; in fact, there’s quite a few bronze medals in there. These are the medals I recall being happiest to win.
Settling for Silver, Battling for Bronze.
But why do Silver medalists seem so sad with being second place? After all, beating everyone else in the world except for one person doesn’t sound so bad.
The mentality of those who gain second place could be summed up with the following quote from psychologist William James’ foundational 1892 book, The Principles of Psychology:
“So we have the paradox of a man shamed to death because he is only the second pugilist or the second oarsman in the world. That he is able to beat the whole population of the globe minus one is nothing; he has “pitted” himself to beat that one; and as long as he doesn’t do that nothing else counts.”
As the saying goes, Second place is the first loser. Being so close to Gold, yet not quite achieving it, is the rite of their position.
In fact, the idea that second place athletes feel like they have missed out on Gold is what inspires a phenomenon I like to term, “Silver Sadness.” It forms the basis of a psychological concept called Counterfactual Thinking.
Counterfactual thinking is characterised by thoughts of, “What might have been?” and involves the tendency to create drastic alternatives to what has already occurred.
In the case of silver medalists, even if they went one up or one down in the rankings, they would have still won a medal. So, there’s a possibility they may fantasise over the more dramatic scenario where they could have won Gold and feel much more upset over their current reality of Silver.
In contrast, bronze medalists cannot afford having moved a place down, because in that instance, they wouldn’t have won a medal at all! It is this drastic thought that makes them more likely to think of the scenario where they didn’t get a medal at all, and therefore are more joyful.
In specific sports with medal matches, such as Judo, Karate Boxing and Wrestling, this phenomenon is further compounded with the last result of each of the medalists’ matches.
In sports where medal matches take place, the Gold and Bronze medalists both finish the competition with a win, as they need to win their respective matches to gain a medal. In contrast, silver medalists finish with a loss, as the medal is typically awarded to the loser of the Gold medal bout. This last match feeling can be extremely important, as it might frame the athlete’s view of the entire competition.
A study in 2006 by psychologist David Matsumoto of San Francisco State University, conducted together with Bob Willingham of The World of Judo magazine, considered facial expressions following the 2004 Athens Olympics Judo Matches, where they match for medals. Collecting data from eighty-four athletes and thirty-five countries, they found that 13/14 gold medal winners smiled immediately after they completed their winning match, and 18/26 bronze medalists smiled. However, none of the silver medalists smiled immediately after their match ended.
In fact, the most common facial expressions among the silver medalists were sadness (43%), contempt (14%) and apathy (29%). Even during the medal ceremonies, while 96.4% of the athletes displayed some sort of smile, the expressions of the silver medalists were less genuine and more forced, with the bronze and gold medalists being more likely to display genuine smiles, known as Duchenne smiles, where your lip corners lift up and eyes crinkle.
Even from personal experience, I can tell you that losing the last bout of your tournament can really dampen your mood, even if you’ve won absolutely everything else. There was one competition I had where I had won every bout except my last, but came first as I had the highest amount of points. I had just won a gold medal! And yet, the atmosphere of my car on the way home was as if we were going to a funeral.
In contrast, I can remember competitions where I had barely managed to place on the podium, and yet, since I had just won my last bout, I was ecstatic.
Going for Gold:
But it isn’t just the sides of the podium that face struggles. Gold Medalists like Micheal Phelps and Simone Biles have been candid about the pressure that comes with being the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) in their respective sports. In fact, Jessica Bartley, director of mental health services for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, says her team received about 10 requests daily during the Tokyo Games to support athletes’ mental health needs; a large majority from those in contention for medals. While at first, Gold medalists are definitely the most joyful out of the medaling trio, over time, they report a similar level of happiness to Silver and Bronze medalists.
This is because of something researchers call Hedonistic Adaption. Essentially, our level of happiness remains largely the same throughout our life, regardless of how objectively successful your life is. While you would feel happy at first, eventually that situation becomes your new normal and you just feel, well, normal!
Additionally, gold medalists can often feel a loss of purpose or aimlessness after winning their medal. This is due to what I pen the, “retirement complex.” It’s the psychological complex of being at the height of achievement and therefore “playing to lose,” that particular achievement as a gold medalist, versus trying to get to the peak and therefore, “having nothing to lose,” like a silver or bronze medalist.
In the same way that those who just retired feel aimless because they don’t quite know what to do with their lives, gold medalists don’t have a logical next move in their lives.
For instance, Silver and Bronze medalists can take their next goal to train for the next Olympics, to win the Gold medal. However, when you’re already at the top, where do you go from there? You can train to maintain your medal, but this links back into hedonistic adaption, since the athlete won’t be training for something bigger than what they’ve already achieved, and therefore won’t feel as happy or passionate towards this goal.
As an athlete myself, I can say that it is definitely difficult to be on any place of the podium; from the Bronze medalist’s precarious, hard fought victory, to the Silver medalist’s bittersweet taste of being so close to the top, and even the immense elation of winning Gold.
Part of being an athlete is facing defeat; they’re double-edged swords in a way. While they make you crushed when you face them, they also make you thirst for the next victory, creating a kind of passion that is hard to find in many other fields.
The Winter Olympics are just a around the corner, so we’ll definitely be seeing more sporting excellency in Beijing!
Husted Medvec, Victoria, et al. “When Less Is More: Counterfactual Thinking and Satisfaction among Olympic Medalists.” Social Cognition, 2004, pp. 579–588., https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203496398-36.
James, Willaim. The Principles of Psychology. Holt, 1915.
Matsumoto, David, and Bob Willingham. “The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat: Spontaneous Expressions of Medal Winners of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 91, no. 3, 2006, pp. 568–581., https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1688.
Park, Alice. “The Tokyo Olympics Changed the Conversation about Mental Health.” Time, Time, 8 Aug. 2021, https://time.com/6088078/mental-health-olympics-simone-biles/.
Written by Hema Keertana Vemuri
Illustrations by Chua Jia Qi