Fin­ish sec­ond and you risk an ear­lier grave, says study

Sunday Star-Times - - WORLD - The Times

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.

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