Olympic Muddle

The Gold, Silver and Bronze Age of the Olympics is relatively new, but the meaning and merit of medals has long been debated.

August 24, 2004|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

How do you color Olympic success?

If you're preoccupied by swimmer Michael Phelps' multi-medal quest, the debate about gymnast Paul Hamm or the U.S. women's softball team, you may think gold.

Yet some of the most memorable moments this week have accompanied Olympic silver and bronze medals: Picture Lauryn Williams winning the silver in the 100 meters, or Deena Kastor's overwhelmed expression as she ran toward her third-place finish in the marathon.

Although it's unlikely we'll soon see bronze medalists in VISA commercials, being second or third can bring instant gratification. Down the road, however, will being an Olympic runner-up count? Will signing fewer autographs mean less self-esteem?

"I was `silver McKee' way before my hair went this color," jokes 51-year-old Tim McKee, a swimmer who earned three silver medals for the United States in the 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games. "Like everything else in life, winning medals is how you interpret it. If you interpret a gold medal as being your identity, that's what it will be. If you have six and you don't think it's a big deal, it's not a big deal.

"I personally didn't make it a big deal."

The record books did, however. In 1972, McKee tied for a gold medal with Swedish swimmer Gunnar Larsson. The event was the 400-meter individual medley, the venue was the Olympic pool in Munich. For eight minutes, the scoreboard listed the official time for both swimmers as 4:31:98.

Then, for the only time in Olympic swimming history, the judges decided to break the first place tie by measuring the race in thousandths of a second. In a highly controversial decision, Larsson was awarded the gold. Since then, similar ties have merited two gold medals.

Although it's difficult to imagine an Olympics without a medal controversy - this year it seems to be Paul Hamm's gold in men's gymnastics - the Gold, Silver and Bronze Age is merely in its infancy.

In ancient times, only first-place Olympians were recognized, usually with a crown fashioned from olive branches. At the first modern Olympics in 1896, the winner received a medal of silver - then considered superior in quality to gold - with a bronze medal awarded to second place. Twelve years later, officials established the current system of giving gold, silver and bronze medals.

The notion of rewarding victors with medals probably hails from 19th-century views of honoring the military, says Richard Johnson, curator of the Sports Museum in Boston. Because medals were used to commemorate heroism on the battlefield, they were also adopted for amateur athletic competition: "War without bloodshed."

In the 21st century, sports has become influenced by another cultural notion: Winning is all that counts, says psychologist Richard Ginsburg, Ph.D., an instructor at Harvard Medical School and co-author of the forthcoming book Real Winners: A Parents' Guide to Great Kids and Good Performance.

"There's something about the media and television and endorsements ... the drive to be exploiting these athletes for financial gain ... that I think is polluting the integrity of sports, emphasizing a win-at-all-costs culture," he says.

"We're kind of blinded by the gold [medal]. Blinded by the idea that it only matters if you win the first prize," he says. "I'm always touched by how the people who didn't win handle it. How they compose themselves - because that's fundamental to life as well as sports - to take a setback and then bounce back. What truly defines many of these athletes is their ability to maintain a positive attitude and to be ready to conquer the next challenge."

For Tim McKee, that meant the 1976 Olympic games in Montreal, where he won another silver medal in the 400 IM with a time that broke the previous world record. He also spent time coaching and serving on national committees, working to advance his sport. In the early 1980s, he began a new career as a lifeguard for the City of Miami Beach Patrol. Now, he and his wife are also raising two young children.

The International Swimming Hall of Fame calls McKee "the ironman of the 1970s, the perennial tough guy."

But was he ever bitter about the '72 Olympics, the same Games where Mark Spitz won a record seven gold medals? Does he regret that his silver would be gold these days?

"I still reconcile it in six words: `I was lucky to be there,' " McKee says.

He mentions the rigors of training for the 1972 games, a feat he accomplished despite the debilitation of mononucleosis. He appreciates how amazing it was that he managed to even qualify for the U.S. Olympic team - and in no less than three events.

Ginsburg says that the personal struggles and dedication that pave the way to the Olympics remain invisible to most spectators cheering for the gold.

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