The organizing principle of the Olympic medals functions as a universal language. Gold means first place, silver means second place, bronze means third place. The games have changed over the years, but this concept has remained a constant.
There is a problem with the medal system, though. The medal count—a ranking of the participant countries based on total metals won—treats all medals as if they are equal. Yet, we know this isn’t true, and the Olympics tells us this isn’t true by the way in which it awards the medals. On the podium, the gold medalist stands the highest, basking in victory as his or her national anthem plays. The silver medalist stands a little lower, and the bronze medalist a little lower than that. But the podium itself tells a lie. It implies that the sliver medal is almost the best. In reality, the sliver medal is the worst.
Obviously, a gold medal is the ultimate goal. You won the big one and that can never be taken away from you. There has never been a sad gold medalist. Even teenaged athletes with ravaged bodies and minds driven to the brink of sanity by their sadistic adult coaches taste the sweet release of freedom when that gold medal is placed around their necks. We all agree on the gold medal.
From there, the ordering system gets less intuitive. A silver medal is supposed to be seen as an incredible and joyous achievement. You’re second best in the world at something! (“Air rifle.”) In a vacuum, of course, it is amazing. But Olympians train their entire lives for often just one opportunity at a medal. If you win silver that means you were probably good enough to win gold but instead you... didn’t. Second place is the first loser, someone apparently once said. If you were at an Olympian’s house and he or she showed you his or her silver medal, you would say, to that person, something like, “Wow! That’s so cool!” But in the back of your mind you might think, “What happened?” Because what did happen? A silver medal is ultimately a story of failure. There is a reason the phrases “Olympic gold medalist” and “Olympic medalist” exist, but “Olympic silver medalist” does not.
The same is technically true for the bronze medal. It signifies a slightly greater failure than the silver medal. But there is a crucial difference: Where the silver medal implies that you almost could have won but lost, the bronze medal implies you almost could have lost but won. No silver medalist has ever looked at the bronze medalist and thought, “Well at least I beat that chump.” But every bronze medalist looks at the fourth place finisher and thinks, “Hey, I’m not that person!”
There are personal exceptions to this rule, of course. There is no shame in getting silver to, say, Michael Phelps, who has more golds than dozens of nations. There has probably been a presumed gold medalist who slipped to third and left their bronze medal with a beggar on their way out of town. But in almost all cases, gold and bronze medals are to be celebrated, whereas a silver medal is to be carried around like an anvil.
We have already seen evidence of this in the first few days of this year’s Olympics. Look how happy American swimmer Cody Miller was to go from underdog in the 100m breaststroke to bronze medalist:
You wouldn’t know from these images that Tom Daley and his diving partner Daniel Goodfellow won bronze in synchronized 10m platform and not gold:
Last night, American David Plummer won bronze in the 100m backstroke. Plummer is a first-time Olympian at age 30, which is practically unheard of, especially in swimming, which is typically dominated by athletes in their early to mid-20s. The race was Plummer’s only event, and given his age likely the only opportunity in his lifetime to win an Olympic medal. Going into the race he had little chance of getting gold, and, indeed, he finished behind the winner, his teammate Ryan Murphy, by a full half second. But Plummer snuck onto the podium, finishing ahead of race favorite, the Australian Mitch Larkin, by just .03 seconds.
“Just amazing,” Plummer told NBC. “I would have loved to have been a little faster, but to get up there on the podium at the Olympics is just a dream come true.”
Every Olympian dreams of medaling. None of them dream of winning silver.