Patt Morrison

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Why winning silver disappoints athletes

by Raghu Manavalan with Justin Ball | Patt Morrison

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McKayla Maroney of the United States stands on the podium with her silver medal during the Artistic Gymnastics Women's Vault medal ceremony. Her gruff expression after coming in second inspired a blog called, a list of fictional pictures where Maroney is less than impressed with history’s greatest achievements. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The average American would probably be thrilled to win a Silver medal at the Olympics, but American gymnast McKayla Maroney looked less than thrilled — almost downright unhappy — on Sunday, despite winning silver in the women’s vault.

Maroney’s reaction exemplifies Cornell psychology professor Thomas Gilovich’s research of Olympic medalists, which indicates that athletes who place third are usually happier than those who place second.

Most silver medalists are discouraged by analyzing what mistakes kept them from winning a gold medal, while most bronze medalists are content to have won anything at all, according to Gilovich’s research.

The psychology professor has said that silver medalists often become more appreciative of their second place finish over time.

Markman on if it’s true people are unhappier about coming in second than first

“In one study … you really do find that silver medalists will rate themselves as significantly less happy than gold medalists and bronze medalists. If you look at facial expressions, not just from the [medal] stands, but also people at the end of matches, you get positive expressions from the winners and the bronze medalists, and not from the silver medalists.”

Klosterman on why athletes respond differently in the Olympics

"What makes the Olympics unlike other sports is the four year gap [between Olympic Games]. With some notable exceptions, you only have one window to succeed."

Markman on the psychological ‘regret factor’
“When you’ve gotten that close, here are people who’ve trained their whole lives to get to their Olympics, and everyone who gets to the Olympics is thinking [they’ll win the] gold medal. When you get that close and then you discover, ‘oh no, I’ve just gotten a silver medal’ … you experience regret. In the moment you’ve just completed the competition, it’s primarily a focus on ‘I’ve could have been a gold medalist.’ [But] six months later, a year later, when you look back on it you’ll realize ‘I really was one of the best of the world in this.’ I think the pain of it can fade over time.“

Klosterman on fan reaction to Olympic athletes
"A big part of this is that the Olympics draw an audience of people who very often are not sort of in the demographic of sports. They watch the Olympics, but they might not watch the NFL or NBA or MLB or whatever. And because you’re bringing in this different type of person who’s watching, certain things that are kind of forgotten in pro sports are exaggerated again. The idea of how you behave after you win or lose is much a bigger deal in the Olympics than it is in something like the NCAA Basketball tournament. Another reason this is, is because the Olympics are one of the rare situations where the presentation of the award is as important as the event itself. You don’t really watch how someone loses in the NBA finals."

Markman on how athlete expectations change emotions
“The closer you are to the gold that you had, the more disappointing you can be. The difference between gymnastics, where everyone feels like they’re in it until the very end, as opposed to … anyone who finished second to Usain Bolt would not really be very depressed, because I don’t expect anyone expected to beat him. It really does have something to do with your expectations on whether you could have won.”

"We tend to look at athletes as abstract beings. One of the things that these clips bring home is that these are people. We don’t necessarily see that until we see the actual pain that someone is experiencing after having trained so hard and come so close and not really achieved their goals."

Klosterman on athlete reactions to losses:

"People don’t like any evidence of bad sportsmanship, but there’s another kind of fan who’s almost equally disturbed by someone who doesn’t care enough about losses, where if after a game that’s hard fought the players seem like buddies and hug each other. People don’t like that either. You’ve gotta find some sort of window in between not seeming petulant about a loss, but also showing some degree that it does emotionally bother you." 


How much do you value second and third place? If you’ve ever come in second, were you disappointed or satisfied with your performance?


Chuck Klosterman, contributor to Grantland, The New York Times Magazine, and The Washington Post, and author of “HYPERtheticals: 50 Questions for Insane Conversations”

Art Markman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin; author of “Smart Thinking: Three Essential Keys to Solve Problems, Innovate, and Get Things Done”

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