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Medallists happier to win bronze than silver, studies say

Categories: Sports

adam-koeverden-silver-kilpatrick-480.jpgCanadian paddler Adam van Koeverden celebrates his Olympic silver medal in the men's 1000-metre kayak single event. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Medal rankings at the London Games are easy to understand: gold for first place, silver for second, and bronze for third. One might assume that placing higher in the rankings makes an athlete feel comparatively better, but does it stack up that way? According to some studies, and a few scrunched faces of disappointment, all that glitters is not...silver.

The stories abound: the Canadian women's soccer team triumphed over France after a controversial loss to the U.S. team in the semifinals. Scoring a single goal in added time, they won an historic bronze medal.

On the other hand, U.S. gymnast McKayla Maroney's failed vault attempt landed her on the mat to the shock of the audience. A favourite to win the gold, it went to Romania's Sandra Izbasa instead. Maroney's facial expression at the medal ceremony, twisted in frustration, was so stark it became an internet meme in less than a day.

According to a study from 1995, the contrasting scenes are far from unusual: those who win bronze are regularly happier than those who win - or "win" - silver.

Psychologists from Cornell University studied footage of athletes just receiving their medals during the 1992 Games in Barcelona. Bronze medallists consistently looked happier than silver medallists, while the gold medallists naturally looked the happiest most often.

The study attributes the comparative results as a function of "counter-factual thinking," or that gnawing "if only..." or "what if" notion of what might have happened. Silver medallists tended to focus on what they could have done to do better and earn a gold medal. Bronze medallists, however, breathed a sigh of relief at winning a medal at all, painfully aware of how close they were to a medal-free fourth position.

And what if one-on-one matches, as opposed to a race's straightforward times, decide placements? A 2006 study from San Francisco State University looked specifically at the judo matches at the 2004 Games in Athens. All of the bronze medallists smiled after winning their match, but none of the silver medallists did after losing their gold medal matches; their expressions, according to Scientific American, "ranged from sadness (43 per cent) to contempt (14 per cent) to nothing (29 per cent)."

While many in the CBC Community suggested a weighted points value for medals when we asked how countries should be ranked, it appears that, to the athletes themselves, a lot more emotion and introspection can go through their minds when medals of any shade is placed around their neck.

How do you think you would handle winning an Olympic medal? Would winning silver represent a failure to win gold, or could you bask in being second in the world?


(This survey is not scientific. Results are based on readers' responses.)

Tags: POV, Sports

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