I remember stopping in my tracks at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996 when I first saw the Nike billboard: “You Don’t Win Silver,” it screamed. “You Lose Gold.” The company pulled the controversial ad campaign soon after, with many crying that it defaced the Olympic spirit, and insulted the overwhelming majority of Olympians who never get close to the victory dais.
But maybe Nike wasn’t so far off in its thinking. In 1995, a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that focused on the Barcelona Olympics and the Empire State Games, discovered that for some athletes, less can actually be more. The study found that bronze medalists tend to be happier and more satisfied with their results than those who take silver. Why? Because a silver means that gold was likely in reach, a crushing exercise in “what might have been,” what psychologists call “counterfactual thinking,” while a bronze means an athlete has avoided the unthinkable: staying off the podium all together.
With Tokyo 2020 just a few weeks away, Team USA is almost ready, with the Olympic Trials for the marquee sports – track and field, swimming, and gymnastics – creating the last high stakes moments before Opening Ceremony. While gymnastics employs both objective and subjective standards for its selection process – a process that in some years has stopped just short of coaches sending up puffs of smoke to indicate who beyond the top qualifiers makes the team – track and swimming are good old-fashioned races, competitions that remind us how in sports almost anything can happen.
Simone Manuel, a breakout star of Rio in the pool, had to wait until her last race at the Trials, the quick dash 50-meters, to get her ticket to Tokyo. Her qualification brought tears of relief to the young champion, who crashed and burned just days earlier in the 100-meters, the event that brought her gold in 2016.
Her Rio teammate, Nathan Adrian, an eight-time Olympic medalist and 2016 team captain, was not so lucky. His third-place finish in the same event was not enough to get a plane ticket to Japan.
Just making it, and just missing it, is part and parcel of sports. Winning is hard. Really hard. Very few athletes ever win anything. Think for a moment about how many athletes compete at an Olympic Games. Think about how few win. Over 300 events, but only one top spot for each.
I lived this a little bit watching the initial heats for the men’s 800-meters, my favorite of the track events. I had a personal interest in Isaiah Harris, a graduate of Lewiston High School, which is at the center of my most recent book, One Goal. A standout athlete in high school, Isaiah headed to Penn State for college, where he won the NCAA Championship at his favorite distance in 2018.
Coming off a nagging Achilles injury, Isaiah looked great in the prelims, and even better in the semis. As he took his spot in the final, occupying an outside lane, I kept reconfiguring the “what can happen” scenarios in my head. I saw it as a battle among reigning world champion and American record holder Donovan Brazier, Bryce Hoppel, Clayton Murphy, and Isaiah. Three of these four runners, I speculated, would head to Tokyo, and one would have the unbearable burden of coming in fourth.
Brazier shockingly imploded, finishing last, showing yet again how in sports, there is no such thing as a sure thing. Murphy, who took bronze in Rio, had the race of his life, clocking the fastest time in the world for the year. Hoppel hung in there with his unflagging consistency. But so did an Isaiah I hadn’t counted on – Isaiah Jewett – who had claimed the NCAA title just 10 days earlier, and ran a brilliantly aggressive race in the final at Trials, finishing just ahead of Hoppel with a personal best.
I was thrilled for this men’s 800-meters squad and crushed – utterly crushed – that not only had Isaiah Harris failed to make the team, he missed it with one of the hardest pills to swallow in sports: coming in fourth.
There will be much to cheer in Tokyo on the track, perhaps especially (at least for me) watching Alyson Felix compete in her astonishing fifth Olympics. But I will also think about those who trained, trained so hard and for so long, and didn’t get their plane ticket. Olympic dreams can disappear in a second or less, reminding us that everything we love about sports – the unpredictable, the drama, the emotion – can also be exactly what we hate about them.
Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College. Bass is the author of ONE GOAL: A COACH, A TEAM, AND THE GAME THAT BROUGHT A DIVDED TOWN TOGETHER, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.
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