Finish second and you risk an earlier grave, says study
The third time Katherine Grainger won an Olympic silver medal, she could not hide her disappointment.
Standing on the podium at Beijing, the Team GB rower famously sobbed. She said later that it was ‘‘like a bereavement’’. It took four years, and a gold medal in London, to end her grief.
That victory did not just make her happier, though. New research suggests that winning gold also added more than two years to her life.
A study has found that second place really is first loser. Olympic silver medallists not only go on to have shorter lives than those who win gold, but also than those who get bronze medals.
Dr Adriaan Kalwij, the economist behind the study, suggests that while those who come in third are grateful to have made the podium, those with a silver spend the rest of their lives wondering ‘‘what if’’. Ultimately, they torture themselves into an early grave.
‘‘It seems probable that the Olympic credo of ‘It is more important to participate than to win’ fails to reflect most silver medallists’ feelings,’’ Kalwij, from Utrecht University, wrote in the journal Economics and Human Biology.
The study looked at mortality rates among every United States Olympic medallist since the Games began. Kalwij showed that those who came second went on to live two to four years less than those who were first or third.
Given that there was little between the athletes in terms of fitness, he argues that the probable explanation for the findings is that the stress of coming second follows the competitors for the rest of their lives.
‘‘Dissatisfaction leads to the secretion of stress hormones – possibly over an extended time period, given the young age at which most silver medallists experience dissatisfaction – which compromises their health,’’ Kalwij said.
The findings tally with the experiences of Olympians from other countries.
Before winning her gold, Grainger, 42, said: ‘‘Silver is a failure. It might sound ungrateful, but that’s the truth of it.’’
At the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang this year, a Canadian ice hockey player refused to wear her silver medal on the podium. Jocelyne Larocque later apologised after an official from the sport’s governing body reprimanded her.
Kalwij’s research adds to a large body of evidence about the health boost that comes from gaining status. Previous studies have shown that Nobel laureates and Oscar winners, for instance, live longer than those who were nominated but never won.
The latest work goes further, though, showing that a near-miss seems to involve a health penalty.
Kalwij said that while bronze medallists could spend the rest of their lives thinking that they narrowly avoided fourth, ‘‘on average, [athletes] appraise silver medals won as gold medals lost’’.
Canadian ice hockey player Jocelyne Larocque refused to wear her silver medal on the podium at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang this year. A new study suggests that Olympic silver medallists shorten their lives by stressing over missing out on the gold medal.