Has Anita Nall won a silver and a bronze, or has she lost two golds?
Media coverage of the Olympics -- from television reporters asking athletes how they feel about not winning a gold to headlines like The Sun's "Towson's Nall must settle for bronze" -- might lead you to believe the latter.
It's a reflection of what one sports psychologist calls an "obsession" with the top medal, and thus the diminishment of silver and bronze.
"In the Olympics in the '30s and the '40s, it was considered an honor just to get there," said James M. Jarvis, a St. Louis-based sports psychologist. "But now . . . winning gold medals has become an obsession."
He and others attribute much of this to the heightened emphasis on sports marketing today, at all levels of athletics. And, they say, the companies interested in signing up Olympic athletes as their spokespersons are usually only interested in the ones who get the gold.
"None of us think of [Anita] as a loser," said Nova Lanktree, a director at Burns Sports Celebrities Service, a Chicago-based company that casts athletes in print and TV advertisements. "From a purely business point of view, though, the bottom line is an advertiser needs the winner. Winning the gold has all sorts of symbolic significance to an advertiser. It means the best, the top."
She points to the boom in recent years in athlete-spokespersons who currently dominate the airwaves, a phenomenon that has made Bo and Dan and Dave first-name-only celebrities.
Theresa Andrews, a gold-medal winner in the 1984 Olympics who, like Anita, trained at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, said she actually benefited from being of little interest, at least before the games, to the media.
"I went in prepared not to even make the team. All the attention, all the cameras were somewhere else," she said of her dark-horse status. "Because Anita has received so much coverage, she has to deal with so many people projecting their expectations on her. My year, I was left to focus on my own."
Ms. Andrews said she sometimes feels fortunate to have won if only because she doesn't have to explain why she "just" placed second or third or beyond.
"I hear friends of mine always having to answer why they came in eighth, or whatever. They're the eighth fastest person in the world!" said Ms. Andrews, now a pediatric social worker who recently took a job in Charlottesville, Va. "I really feel for Anita. But people should know, she has years and years of competition still ahead of her."
Indeed, the advantages of coming into an event as a favorite can be negated by the pressures that a title or a record or a reputation also bring: If you come in as the reigning champion, the gold is yours to lose; if you come in as the underdog, it's yours to win.
Because of this, Anita's bronze in "her" event, the 200-meter breaststroke on Monday, however unfairly, somehow may seem less of an accomplishment than the bronze won by the women's gymnastics' team on Tuesday.
The difference is that Anita was the reigning record holder in her event, while the American gymnasts were up against the Unified Team -- heir to the old, indomitable Soviet gymnastics machine -- that was expected to win the gold and, indeed, did.
"Most athletes say it's better to come from behind," said Sean McCann, a sports psychologist with the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. He cites a recent survey of figure-skating champions in which about 70 percent said it was much harder to defend a title than to achieve it in the first place.
"Say you're a wrestler, and you start winning by taking chances. Once you're a favorite, though, you start thinking more like, 'I don't want to lose. I don't want to take any chances or do anything stupid.' It takes away what made you a champion in the first place," he said.
Unfortunately, the emphasis on gold medals today can only contribute to the factors that make an athlete lose the gold, he said.
"Going for an outcome can actually hurt your chances of achieving it," he said. "Instead, we try to train the athletes to think about their performance rather than the outcome, what do you have to do to achieve that outcome."
And that, of course, is easier said than done, especially in the high-pressure environment of the Olympics, Dr. McCann said.
"It's a difficult challenge not to get sucked into the outcome issue, especially when endorsements are involved," he said. "I think endorsements can become a factor when they make it harder to focus on the event itself. It's never a useful thought, but it's a pretty hard thing to ignore."