Bronze is still a medal

I had a debate with my neighbour the other day over the Olympics, and notably how Canadians are approaching our successes at the Games. I love having debates with my neighbour — he’s well-educated, open-minded, (loves beer), and is a pragmatist when it comes to opposing views (he explores ideas, rather than shooting them down).

He was perplexed that Canadians — media, especially, but also actual people — were jumping for joy at winning medals other than gold. The idea of not winning, but getting second or third, seemed utterly bizarre, let alone the jumping for joy we exhibit when we get a medal.

That was my point, though: it’s a medal. And yes, it’s worth celebrating.

Let’s be honest, gold is … well, the standard. It’s been that way for millennia, so yes, gold should be the most valuable award. And yes, it’s quite a drop from gold to silver, in terms of value, and I’m sure (on some mathematical scale) it’s an equal drop from silver to bronze. Bronze, really, is just copper and tin, so it’s not even precious, and not really valuable.

But we’re not really talking metals, here. We’re talking achievement. We’re talking about how one person has strived, over the course of many, many years, to aim for an inexorably high level of standard, beyond that of mere mortal humans. They come to define a level of physical perfection, of intense mental focus, of rigorous and highly-skilled training.

I don’t know what it’s like to be an Olympic-level athlete, but I do have an idea of what it’s like to be competitive in sports. In my youth, I learned to sail, using the same basic routes and plans (even boats) that are used at the Olympics. I’ve swam at many competitions, and felt the crushing defeat of missing something by mere tenths of a second (it was high school in the late 80s, people — we didn’t have these new-fangled accurate gizmos).

Lemme tell ya something: I knew, even then, that those were low-key events. I made it to the regionals on the swim team, which was fantastic (and insanely stressful), but … well, I challenge you to find any record of me having done that. Yes, that’s because it’s minor, insignificant.

Now let’s amp that up, oh, a few million times. Those folks you see on-screen, putting themselves out on the line (and I don’t care what sport)? They’ve been through hell to get there, and still going through hell being put in front of the entire world. And they have to push themselves to beat personal bests, and keep up with dozens of other athletes who are all beating themselves senseless to do the same thing.

And every single one of them is doing this at a level that 99.999% of will, and never could achieve. They’re the hardcore of the hardcore. And most of them are going to fail.

There are, and have always been, three placements in the Olympics: First, Second, and Third. The top 3. Sometimes, separated by mere hundredths of seconds, or by single digit points, tiny slivers of difference that space gold from bronze, and sometimes first from last.

Is a bronze less than a gold? Of course it is. Is it more than the others?Of course it is. Would I tell an Olympian who won bronze: “Gee, that’s too bad…”? I might as well discount those people who only matched 5 of the 7 numbers in the 6/49, or ignore the rest of the people in Parliament not in the majority or official opposition. It might not be gold, but in no way would I ever consider silver or bronze to be any less of an achievement.

Sadly, part of the problem is how Canadian media has been reacting to medals, and praising them on equal level as gold, which is not really fair. Gold medals are the pinnacle (even if some of the sports are stacked heavily in one country’s favour coughBASKETBALLcough), and should be recognised that way.

But there are some countries, such as Canada, where gold (notably in Summer Games) is simply not a reality. We’re not a “summer” country. We have snow for 11 months of the year. We like things when they’re frozen. Normally, when we go swimming, we use a chainsaw to get down to the water that hasn’t frozen yet. So, yeah, we take achievements when we get them, and are proud of them for what they are. Heck, Canada’s identity largely includes knowing damn well that we’re not the top of the heap, and we’re okay with that.

Well…mostly okay with that. Oh, let’s be honest, there’s also that neighbour to the south of us. You know them: the ones with the money and the flashy cars, the nice clothes, the immaculate lawn. When they go to the Olympics, it’s almost like they’ve gone to the jewelry shop and pre-ordered the ones they want to win. If it’s not gold, they’re not interested, so they go all out. There’s lots of money spent on US athletes, which is why they’re so good. They’ve got more corporate sponsorship, and more Government assistance. Canada is a tenth of the US in population — we simply don’t have the cash. So, yeah, we take achievements where we get them.

And, ultimately, I guess we also have to find some way to justify Own The Podium, that odourous little program started up to make Canada more visible in the Games (winter and summer), though the mere thought that Canada — keep in mind the identity I mentioned previously! — should ever attempt to dominate something like this makes many of us sick to our stomachs. That’s not Canadian pride, no sir. Furthermore, this goofy little program only benefits the top athletes — it doesn’t really help the ones who need it most, keeping the financial burdens and the barriers to entry prohibitively high.

I am proud of the athletes who went to London this year. I’m proud not so much for the medals won, but for the fact that they competed. They did what they’d dreamed most of their lives, and fought hard for what they wanted most. For those who achieved? Of course, the heartiest of congratulations. For those who … came short? Don’t think you won’t still get a hearty round of applause. You did what most of us could never do, so even if you return with nothing more than what you went there with, you’re no less an Olympian.

I’ll tell you this: if I ever manage to go to a Games, and see someone I know win bronze, from my cheer alone they’d think they’d won gold.

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