After a bitter loss, John Herdman, the head coach of the Canadian women’s soccer team spitefully threw their silver medal into the crowd. He later told the media that “I don’t play this game for medals… and not silver ones anyway.” Some people have called him a sore loser, but apparently, his feelings are not uncommon.
Research into gold, silver and bronze medal winners show that silver medal winners are often unhappier than bronze medal winners. Gold is first, silver is second and bronze is third. The rankings are clear, but silver medal winners don’t come in second for happiness.
David Matsumoto is a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University and a former US Olympic Judo coach. He researched the facial expressions of 84 Olympic medal judo winners from 35 countries. He found that 13 out of 14 gold medal winners smiled after their final match. Bronze medal winners smiled 18 out of 26 times. Silver medal winners, on the other hand, never smiled after their final match ended. Instead, some of them displayed facial expressions of sadness and contempt.
The agony of the silver medalists has been researched among other sports, and the results are similar. Some psychologists say that silver medalists are comparing up, while bronze medalists are comparing down. While the silver medalist is often in agony over coming so close to gold but failing, the bronze medalist is happy that they won something rather than nothing.
Basing our happiness or sadness on how close we come to success transcends sports. Imagine a plane that crashes in the wilderness. A lone survivor walks for days towards civilization but dies 75 miles before reaching the nearest town. Compare that story with a similar survivor who also walks for days, but collapses a quarter mile from the town. Who deserves more compensation for their death? This question was given to different groups of people in a research study. People who heard the story of the survivor who almost reached safety awarded more compensation money to the survivor’s family.
They say that time heals all wounds, but the pain of the silver medalists doesn’t always fade. One elderly former Olympic runner was interviewed about coming in 2nd place in his youth. He remembers being far ahead of the competition and then fading towards the end of the race. Now in his 90s, he says that not a day goes by that he doesn’t think of that race.