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Articles > Sports & Fitness August, 18, 2016

Should We Abolish Silver And Bronze Olympic Medals?

Babatunde Onabajo
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Don’t get me wrong, I hate the idea of “participation medals” as much as anyone else. It seems that there’s an unfortunate trend in today’s society to wrap children in cotton wool to protect them from the harsh reality that, yes, there are winners and there are losers in life. But does that warrant an abolition of silver and bronze medals at the Olympics? Does that really mean that winning gold is all that matters?

olympic medals

Photo by Laurie Kinnburgh

This was the opinion of commentator Piers Morgan in a column for the Daily Mail. Morgan unravelled the secret behind why Michael Phelps, the 6’4 American swimmer who is regarded by many as the “greatest Olympian of all time,” is consistently successful in his chosen sport.

Morgan argued that in addition to his physiological superiority, he also has the cultural backdrop to help propel him to success: Americans are only concerned with those who come first. They have no time for second or third place. Unlike Great Britain it seems, whose reporting of Tom Daley’s (and Dan Goodfellow’s, I haven’t forgotten about him!) bronze medal in the Men’s 10m synchronised diving was a tad overzealous.

In fairness, Morgan didn’t outwardly call for silver and bronze medals to be scrapped. However, as some of his readers rightly recognise, that is the ultimate aim of his beliefs.

It is admirable that Morgan praises the dedication of Michael Phelps who completely surpassed the training standards of his fellow competitors. At one point, Phelps reportedly went five years without a break in training, even for Christmas, birthdays or Thanksgiving.

“Hard work and commitment are values that we should be promoting among younger generations”

Hard work and commitment are values that we should be promoting among younger generations. However, the critical assumption that Morgan makes is that hard work corresponds to success in one’s chosen field. That may work for swimming, where the winner is evident to all – whoever finishes first – but it doesn’t work for sports such as gymnastics or synchronised diving, in which one’s success is hinged on the opinion of a group of judges. It doesn’t matter how many holiday breaks you have foregone; you have little control over the judges’ verdict.

Is it even true that one’s success in sport comes down to hard work? In events such as the 100m dash, each runner has done everything in his or her power to ensure that that they will be number one. Yet the outcome is determined by that marginal advantage, some would say a “genetic fluke,” which athletes have no control over.

Many athletes will agree that there is nothing to be embarrassed about in finishing second place to someone like Usain Bolt. We are all familiar with that memorable story of the small-statured David slaying the much larger Goliath. Yet I would hypothesise that even if David were to have lost, he would still be remembered to this very day for his courage, his fortitude and his determination. And we saw that in the Euro 2016, when Iceland and Wales were met with rapturous commendation for their achievements despite not placing first.

In reality, Morgan inadvertently touches upon a much deeper and more complicated problem that economists and political philosophers are familiar with: that of “equity” and “distribution.” In most modern economies, we don’t let the disabled and the poor die because they do not make enough money, which is the position of a “loser” from the viewpoint of capitalism. We provide mechanisms which give them an amiable standard of living.

Morgan’s advocacy of “winner takes all” only works in some contexts; in others, it’s much better to also award prizes to those who finish in second and third place as well as to remember those who, although came nowhere near, were noticeable by the defiance of their personal circumstances.

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  1. Megan Singleton

    I think… that silver and bronze medals have their place in our society. In elite sport, the athletes endure years of pain-staking training sessions, putting their chosen sport first in every decision that they make. So when it comes down to winning a medal, any medal in fact, they should be heaped in praise. Even to make it to the final is a huge deal, and to rob athletes of silver and bronze medals is to remove the opportunity for them to get recognition for how far they’ve come.

  2. Joshua Jones

    I think… We should keep the silver and bronze medals. For those skilled enough to place themselves in 2nd and 3rd position it gives them the recognition as outstanding athletes they deserve (like to see you run 100m in under 10s). If we only had gold and formally acknowledge only them people would compete to be world champion …. Not the best they could be themselves

  3. Ashley Field-smith

    I think that recognition of accomplishment, even when someone has won third place, is always a good thing, and just because someone has not won third place doesn’t mean that they haven’t accomplished something huge, and they deserve worldwide recognition for this.

  4. Eleanor Stephens

    The reason Michael Phelps is so ridiculously successful is less to do with something unique about the American spirit and more just the way the sport of swimming works.

    In some sports there’s only one competition, and that’s it. Take judo. You go to the Olympics and win the gold for judo and then you wait four years and try again. Entering more than one weight category is pretty unimaginable – you’d have to be fighting in the category above your natural one (since you can’t enter the category below), the day after you just won your first medal and probably acquired several minor injuries in the process, and you’d have to be learning the fighting styles and tactics of two whole categories of opponents. Plus the amount of optimisation that goes into being just the right weight and strength for your category is incredible – nobody could fight in two. You’ve got no chance if you’re too young and inexperienced or too old and grey, so you could maaaaybe win three golds in a lifetime, if you were a truly incredible athlete.

    Then look at swimming. You turn up to the Olympics as a swimmer and you can enter the 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle, 200m freestyle, 400m freestyle, 1500m freestyle, 100m backstroke, 200m backstroke, 100m breaststroke, 200m breaststroke, 100m butterfly, 200m butterfly, 200m individual medley, 400m individual medley, 4x100m freestyle relay, 4x200m freestyle relay, and the 4x100m medley relay. (There’s also a 10km marathon but to be fair, sprinters generally don’t run marathons and vice versa). If you just went to the Summer Olympics and were the best swimmer ever to swim and won all of those, you would have sixteen golds. It’s like if we told Usain Bolt he could have a separate gold medal for every 100m race he could win wearing a different brand of shoes. He’d start having to sell some of them to buy a big enough cupboard to keep the others in.

    America’s pretty good at swimming. So, surprise, the most celebrated Olympian ever is a swimmer from America. And if you look at the list of most celebrated Olympians ever (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_multiple_Olympic_medalists) you notice most of them are swimmers or gymnasts. (Gymnastics is similar – you can win medals for all sorts of different pieces of equipment and as a team.) Michael Phelps is a great Olympian who we should look up to, but not any more than we look up to Olympians in other sports that aren’t quite so free with their medals.

    (Besides, if you just look at individual medals – no team/relay medals count – then the person with the most medals is Phelps, at 13 golds, 2 silvers and a bronze. But the people with second, third and fourth most medals – Larisa Latynina, Nikolai Andrianov, and Boris Shakhlin – were all Soviet gymnasts. If winning lots of gold medals is caused by having a national spirit that cares only about individually coming first, please explain that.)

    • Babatunde Onabajo

      True Eleanor, and thank you so much for your very insightful comment. I really love this and there should be a feature on this website called “Comment of the month”, for that is what it is. I agree wholeheartedly. That is one reason why I personally have issue with media outlets using the title “Greatest Olympian of all time” with regards to Michael Phelps based on the number of medals he has achieved. Don’t get me wrong, he is a phenomenal and world-class athlete. However, I think each sport really needs to be judged on its own merits. One can’t judge athletic superiority based on the number of medals accumulated simply because some events have only marginally different races. I loved your Bolt analogy too :).

  5. TUOYO BUWA

    I think it will cause demotivation if the silver and bronze medal is taken out

  6. Veronika Sigutova

    Honestly, I see no wrong with silver and gold medals. There will, of course, always be only one winner, but awarding only the “best one” while omitting those who might be only a teeny tiny bit behind (which happens very often in sport!) is highly discouraging. Also, it sends an implicit message that nothing except winning matters, and that is a very unhealthy mindset, in sport as well as elsewhere, for example in education. It encourages rivalry and lowers one’s self esteem.

  7. Kenta Renard

    Not at all. One of the greatest Jamaican track athletes, Merlene Ottey had very few gold’s and many silvers and bronzes. We may have other similar athletes in the future and we don’t want their careers diminished

  8. mugenyi

    thats a big no because the second participant and third also deserve atleast a medal for there participation

  9. Toby Prynne

    I think everyone aims to achieve gold, and I agree that maybe silver and bronze medals should be abolished to increase the want and desire to obtain a gold medal. However this will not make them rarer or more valuable and will mean some people who have worked tirelessly for 4 years to get a medal will go home empty handed, therefore I recognise second and third not as winning medals but as medals for the hard work and effort put into the Olympics.

  10. Kira Jarvis

    I think…they need to keep silver and bronze medals as it allows for people to succeed e.g. coming home a bronze medalist is just as good as gold, but just 3rd not 1st.

  11. Kira Jarvis

    I think…

  12. Will Ponty

    I think everyone aims to achieve gold, and I agree that maybe silver and bronze medals should be abolished to increase the want and desire to obtain a gold medal. However this will not make them rarer or more valuable and will mean some people who have worked tirelessly for 4 years to get a medal will go home empty handed, therefore I recognise second and third not as winning medals but as medals for the hard work and effort put into the Olympics.