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On Winning for Gold and “Losing” for Silver

canadian women's hockey team When Patrick Chan got the silver medal for men’s figure skating in the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, he apologized to Canadians for not getting the gold. And when Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir skated to silver, Canadians cried foul!  How is it possible that their free skate was that much “worse” than the American team’s?

When the Canadian women’s and men’s hockey teams won gold, Canadians celebrated and cheered in a way that they would not have had “we” lost that gold medal game.

But the thing about a gold medal game is this: the worst you can do is get the silver medal!  Silver is pretty darn good.  I’m always struck by the reaction of athletes and spectators, especially when it comes to the gold medal game.

I get that in the gold medal game, you win for gold and lose for silver.  And in the scheme of a hockey game, for example, there’s no getting around the fact that if you end up with the silver, you’ve lost that game.  But you’ve still come out pretty well, and don’t we all forget that?

There is such tremendous pressure on the athletes to get gold. Suddenly, during the Olympics, so many people lose sight of the sheer joy of watching elite athletes compete at their chosen sports.  The pressure is so great that I actually feel bad for athletes who don’t win (which is a lot of athletes!).

I’d read somewhere that the Sochi Games would be considered a failure (by Russians?) if the Russian men’s hockey team didn’t win the gold medal.  If that’s true, it’s sad.  I felt a real pang of disappointment on their behalf when they got eliminated (they didn’t even make it to the bronze medal game).  I recalled the time in World Cup soccer when the Columbian player who scored on his own net was murdered for his mistake.  Is winning the big prize really so important?

And yet, I sat on the edge of my seat during both hockey games, cheering for the Canadian teams, knowing full well that the worst they could do was get a silver medal. And though I didn’t think Patrick Chan owed us an apology, I felt disappointed that he didn’t manage to nail a couple of parts of his beautiful program that would have earned him the gold medal.

Besides the thrill of Canadian victory in the hockey games (we’re kind of serious about our hockey!), I have two Olympics moments that will be forever etched in my memory. The first is the overflowing joy of the Swiss women’s hockey team as they received their bronze medals.  They beamed with pride. I felt more moved watching their reactions than the Canadians, equally beaming.  In contrast, the US team stood in shock. Few smiled when they received their silver medals. They were still feeling the sting of having just lost a game (that it looked as if they had in the bag).

I don’t blame the US women for their reaction.  I’m sure “our” team would have been similarly devastated to lose the gold medal game.

The second image came right at the end, when in the closing ceremony they awarded the medals for the men’s 50K cross country ski event.  Three Russian athletes stood on the podium while the three Russian flags ascended to their rousing national anthem (what is it about their national anthem? I love it!).  I could feel the pride of the athletes at that moment. Pleased that we Canadians didn’t have to sacrifice hockey, it seemed fitting to me that the final medal ceremony should be a Russian sweep.

I can get as caught up as anyone in medal counts and pining for gold, but the fact is, all of the athletes are amazing to watch.  All of them, medalists and non-medalists, the athletes who get the gold, the athletes who surprise themselves with bronze, the athletes who come in seventh but are thrilled at their personal record, they’re all world class at their chosen sport.  What an amazing thing to get to watch them every day for a couple of weeks every four years!

I’m one of those people who likes races where everyone gets a medal.  See my post Why It’s a Good Thing That Everyone Gets a Medal. I don’t actually think that this should extend to the Olympics. It wouldn’t be nearly as exciting. So I’m not saying that everyone who competes at the Olympics is a winner.  Of course not. But for sure everyone who gets a medal at the Olympics, whether it be gold, silver, or bronze, is a winner.

Just ask the Swiss women’s hockey team.

8 thoughts on “On Winning for Gold and “Losing” for Silver

  1. My husband and I comment frequently about Olympians who “lose” the gold by winning silver. I love the images of athletes/teams like the Swedes who are thrilled to win whatever medal they’ve won. For some, you’d think the bronze was the gold based on their joy, and I love those images. There were athletes (Noelle Pikus-Pace) and teams (US four-man bobsled) who were positively giddy with the silver or bronze.

    I do understand wanting to win the gold, but winning silver or bronze is nothing to be ashamed of. It means you are the second and third best in your event on that particular day. And that particular day only comes around once every four years, so you’re very special for having that spectacular day. Then there are times when someone else just happens to have that spectacular day and finishes better than you. I personally think just being in the Olympics is nothing to sneeze at, and I’m impressed by the skill it takes to reach that level. Even if you’re Eddie the Eagle. 🙂

  2. I’ve been thinking about “winning” and “losing” alot lately. My first visceral reaction to your comments is a very negative one. But on reflection I really do agree with you. It’s hard when you’ve been brought up to win – almost at all costs – to rid yourself of that deep-rooted visceral “shame”-response to even the thought of losing. ***sigh*** Shame is a horrible motivator, but it is a very powerful one.

  3. I think there are two things involved: you just lost your last game (vs winning the bronze), and you were *so close* to gold. So the silver medal is this constant reminder, even years later, of how close you came…but you fell short. At least with the bronze, you were farther away from gold, because you lost the semi-final match rather than the final.

    I say all this *as an athlete* who has been there, multiple times, in big tournaments. I won a *lot* of gold…but I have a couple silver and a couple bronze. The silver piss me off…even today. The bronze don’t.

    And for what it’s worth, I’ve spoken to lots of other high performance athlete friends, and most of us all share the same sentiment. There have been cases where I knew that gold was a long-shot for me, and then getting silver is a celebration. But if I felt that I had a realistic shot at gold, then falling short and getting silver isn’t a celebration…it’s something to mourn.

    1. I can see the psychology and emotions of it — you literally need to win for gold and lose for silver in those matches. With the bronze, you at least won THAT game to get the bronze (though sometimes, as we saw with the US men’s team, you’re still smarting from having lost your chance at the gold and so can’t even get your head into the bronze medal game).

      It’s like that in lots of things. I know people who never forget that job they didn’t get because they were the second choice, and the first choice person took it. But those same people don’t even remember the jobs they applied for but weren’t even interviewed for. Similar dynamic I’m sure. Coming close and not getting the prize is demoralizing for sure. Thanks for this.

    2. I suppose then that the very best thing that could happen is beating a clearly superior opponent for the gold, by somehow just turning in a performance which somehow exceeds what you are normally capable of, or what you really even should be capable of. I am not an elite athlete, but I have played on sports teams where we won the finals and defeated teams which were in truth clearly superior to us, by somehow staying close to them for most of the game and once, by winning on the first shift in overtime – almost I think because they sat back so defensively on that first shift, while we attacked, as they were quite literally stunned that the game was going to overtime! Their anger at losing was delicious, as they were otherwise quite a smug lot.

  4. I was personally quite disappointed in my American Women’s team for their despondent display during the medal ceremony. I know the passionate feud between these two teams runs long and deep, but you won a gosh-darn SILVER MEDAL in the OLYMPICS. It’s like I tell my 8 year old — it’s great to win, but if you do your best, or if someone does better than you, and you come in second or third – hold your head up high, relish the accomplishment, and if it still matters to you, commit to trying again for Gold next time. But NEVER apologize!

  5. You should tune into the Aussi coverage. We’re excited when one of ours makes the finals… even if they do have a Canadian accent.

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