Silver and Gold
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Hey America, an Olympic silver medal is actually awesome.
Last night, when Ryan Lochte was passed by France’s Yannick Agnel in the final length of the men’s 400 freestyle relay, it wasn’t because Lochte had choked. Nor was it because Lochte swam poorly, missed a wall, inhaled water, forgot to warm up, hit the lane line, cramped, was thinking of a failed math test from 3rd grade, or stopped trying. Yannick Agnel was just that fast. You too would get passed against someone swimming a 46.7. Even Phelps. Even Adrian. Yannick Agnel swam a superb time when the time was right, and Ryan Lochte happened to be the unlucky one swimming in the lane next to him.
In the post race interview on NBC, you could see the U.S. team was equal parts disappointed and exhausted – but there were a few smiles, too. They swam their hearts out. They had great split times. They all swam faster than they had at Trials. Especially Adrian (who took out Australia’s James Magnussen) and Phelps (who did as Lochte said he would do, and swam “lights out.”)
But minutes after the race, many brought heat on Lochte. On Twitter. On Facebook. The comments were similar: Lochte blew it. Lochte is no Phelps. Lochte this. Lochte that. Others used slightly lighter language, saying the U.S. was “surprised” or “upset in the final leg.” Assuming the anchor leg responsibility not only means facing other the nations’ best sprinters. You also take any and all heat for the entire relay’s performance – especially if you dive in with the lead. You could be swimming against some monster version of an 8-foot tall Ian Thorpe, and still you’d be criticized. If the U.S. relay order was reversed, and Adrian was anchoring, we’d hear similar stories about Adrian. Similar headlines like, “Adrian loses lead.” Last I checked, it took four swimmers to win a relay… and four to lose.
My question is: When did a silver medal become unacceptable?
When did a silver medal mean someone blew it? Or choked? When did a silver medal mean a performance was a failure? Is that what it means? Should the second place finishers not even bother to show up to the podium? The American team wasn’t even expected to win – Australia was. They finished fourth. They didn’t even medal. We did. And yet, we all say, “No!” at the finish instead of, “YES!”
It’s part of our culture in America to desire the best, to crave the best, to worship the best. We pound our chests as the “world’s best country.” We expect our athletes to be the world’s best performers. But time and time again, we need to be refreshed that a silver or a bronze medal is, for lack of a better phrase, literally amazing.
Take Brendan Hansen. He earned a bronze medal in the men’s 100m breaststroke. It was the most emotional event contested at this Olympics. There was an unprecedented attempt at a three-peat. A death of a world champion. A 30-year-old comeback story. The final itself would have been a roller coaster for anyone involved, not to mention the journey getting there. Hansen was racing in lane 8 next to his rival, Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima. And Hansen beat him. Though Hansen didn’t win Olympic gold, at age 30, the odds were that he wouldn’t. No 30-year-old has ever won an individual gold medal. He won bronze, beat an age-old rival in the process, and proved to himself he could return to the world elite level.
Hansen later said his bronze medal was his favorite medal of any Olympics. And this is a guy who has won gold medals. To him, though, 3rd was even better than a 1st. It meant more, despite the different color. There was something more to it. There was a personal journey that we will never truly know about. After earning this very special, emotional, “favorite medal” of the color bronze, would you ask Brendan Hansen if he was “disappointed?” Would you go online and tell the world how you thought Hansen choked, or wasn’t Michael Phelps?
Of course not. But I hear these stories all the time: Athlete has unfair pre-Olympic expectations. Athlete earns a bronze or silver medal at the Olympic games. First question athlete is asked: “Are you disappointed?”
Our culture is simultaneously gold-oriented yet we preach the importance of the journey, not the destination. It’s a contradiction that unfortunately rears its ugly head when an American Olympian “loses” a gold medal and instead “settles” for silver or bronze. Instead of praising, we critique. Instead of pointing out what went well, we point out the flaws.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be the best. Winning is part of sports. But anyone who has ever entered the coliseum of competition knows that true satisfaction really is the journey, the ride, and the long, winding road. If you have the wisdom to realize that the cliché rings true – if you try your best, you can never be disappointed – then an Olympic silver or bronze medal would be icing on the cake of a fruitful and wondrous career in sport.
Instead, we have moments like last night. Moments when some – not all, but some – tear down an Olympic silver medal.
Swimming isn’t about winning, as any swimmer will tell you. While the gold medals are to be celebrated and revered, any athlete at the Olympics should be hailed as an accomplishment rather than a failure. The Brendan Hansens and the Peter Vanderkaays and the Allison Schmitts and the silver medal winning 400 free relays… these are accomplishments. And yes, so are the Lochtes and the Phelpses.
It’s absurd to tear down those who enter this competition, represent their country, put their hearts, souls, and bodies on the line in front of a billion people, and come away with an Olympic medal. I understand that slamming “those who don’t win” makes for viral headlines, articles, Tweets, blogs, and posts… but should it?
Mike Gustafson (@MikeLGustafson) is a freelance writer for USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine.