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Don't be surprised if the Olympic bronze medal winner comes away happier than whoever wins silver

July 30, 2021

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Editor's Note: This story has been updated from an earlier version.

On Sunday, weather permitting, three golfers will step to the podium at Kasumigaseki Country Club outside Tokyo and accept their Olympic medals. If the scene resembles most Olympic podiums, there will be a gold medal winner who will be appropriately thrilled. From there, however, it tends to get more complicated.

Take, for instance, 2016 in Rio. Justin Rose had just won the first Olympic gold medal in 112 years, and rightfully appeared happiest of all. But if one were to study the expressions of Henrik Stenson and Matt Kuchar, it was hard to tell who won silver and who won bronze. In many photos, in fact, it was the bronze medalist Kuchar who flashed the bigger smile.

As it happens, this is a fairly common dynamic. Several years ago, psychologists Victoria Medvec, Thomas Gilovich and Scott Madey used the Olympic podium as part of a study of "counterfactual thinking," which describes the human tendency of focusing on what might have been as opposed to actually what is.

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The test they set up was at once simple and brilliant. Using footage from the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, the researchers asked undergraduate students to assess on a 10-point scale the facial expressions of athletes both in the immediate aftermath of an event and on the medal stand. A rating of one would be a miserable expression where a rating of 10 would be ecstatic. Once all the results were compiled, the trend was apparent. Both right when an event ended and on the podium, the athletes who finished with a bronze medal looked markedly happier than those who won silver.

The reasoning behind this isn't hard to follow, and the trio of Rose, Stenson and Kuchar serve as a fitting example. On the Sunday of the Rio Olympic golf competition, both Rose and Stenson harbored hopes of winning golf's first gold medal in 112 years. On the 18th hole, the two were still tied at the top, and so when Rose birdied the last to win, he was able to savor the realization of a dream, while Stenson could only think of coming up short. Going back to that idea of counterfactual thinking, in which you're left to contemplate what could have been, Stenson's reaction was to consider that he could have won gold, but now had to settle for something less.

Kuchar's Sunday, however, was far different. Entering the final round he was seven shots off the lead, and four shots behind third-place Marcus Fraser. Kuchar wasn't even the low American, trailing Bubba Watson by a shot. In other words, when he was forced to contemplate what could have been, Kuchar had to realize he might not have won any medal at all. Sure, he left his last putt for birdie short that would have tied him with Stenson. But he still shot 63, which was enough to feel good about whatever he had around his neck.

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“I can assure you I’ve never been so excited to finish in the top three in my life,” he told Golf Channel’s Steve Sands in 2016. “I can’t explain to you the pride I feel just burning out of my chest. It’s something I haven’t felt before.”

What the medal experiment ultimately reflects, of course, is expectations. In golf, those always differ from one player to the next—which is why a player who finished, say, 30th in this month’s Open Championship might have been significantly happier with his week than Louis Oosthuizen, who has 8 eight top 3s in majors but no wins since 2010.

But what makes the Olympics different as well is its unique cutoff between success and failure. In some ways winning has a more generous definition in the Games — a regular golf tournament has one winner, whereas an Olympic podium has three spots. But even then, perspectives differ, perhaps best encapsulated by the U.S. swimmer Lilly King, who has won a silver and bronze medal in breaststroke so far in Tokyo.

"Pardon my French, but the fact that we’re not able to celebrate silver and bronze is bullshit,” she said.

In other words, King seemed to be saying, second- or third-place is no small thing when the alternative is walking away with nothing at all.