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An illustration of a female athlete smiling and kissing a bronze Olympic medal against a blue background
Bronze medalists think of their victory as being better than in fourth place — at least they won a medal. Illustration by (c) Reset Fest Inc, Canada

Well-Being

Why Bagging the Bronze at the Olympics Can Make Athletes Happier Than Winning Silver

There’s a lesson for all of us in this, not just athletes.

The Olympics are in full swing, with countries sending their best athletes to Tokyo to compete, while the rest of the world (and Japan) watches in apprehension as the pandemic rages on. While some athletes like America’s Simone Biles withdrew from the games to protect her mental health, there are also those like tennis ace (and occasional man-child) Novak Djokovic, who broke his racket in frustration during a match. 

So naturally, the hot takes for this week revolve around the mindsets of Olympic athletes. But, can we really tell how the pressures of performing at the Olympics makes athletes feel

A study from last year, stemming from a 1995 analysis of Olympic medal winners, shows that silver medal winners are unhappier than those who bag bronze. Andrea Luangrath, a University of Iowa assistant marketing professor, and her colleagues looked at getting to the bottom of why silver medalists looked less thrilled on the podiums. 

“It’s pretty counterintuitive because the silver medalist just performed better, but we found that third place winners tend to express more happiness after an Olympic event, than those who come in second,” Luangrath told NPR in an interview. The study looked at medal winners from the past five Olympic games, dating back to 2000 and ran the winners’ facial expressions through an analytical software program to study markers such as micro expressions and body language. 

According to the findings, athletes view their wins through different standards. Silver medalists tend to think of their victory as a shortcoming because of narrowly missing out on gold. They tend to focus more on the fact that they missed winning the gold medal by a narrow margin than the fact that they have still won. Whereas, bronze medalists think of their victory as being better than in fourth place — at least they won a medal. 

The study also led to another theory that silver medalists perform worse than they think they will going into the competition, hence affecting their happiness. Bronze medalists, more often than not, perform better than they expect to. 

Luangrath says that there is a lesson for all of us in this, not just athletes. “There are always going to be people who we can compare ourselves to that are better, faster, smarter or whatever and that can make us feel relatively bad,” she said, adding that we should instead look at the ways in which we exceed our own expectations.


Also read: Why Mediocrity Isn’t Always a Bad Thing


 

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Why Bagging the Bronze at the Olympics Can Make Athletes Happier Than Winning Silver