Photo of Paris 2024 Olympic bronze medal

The Hardest Medal to Win? The Bronze.

Release Date: February 12, 2024

Category: Blog

Bronze medals represent more than just third place, and in many sports they may be the hardest medal to win.

For sports like running, throwing, and lifting, the bronze is for third place finishers. You’re the third runner to cross the line – here’s your bronze medal.

But in other sports, athletes need to wrest that bronze medal from the jaws of defeat.

Sports like 3×3 basketball, archery, badminton, and fencing all require the athletes who are in third and fourth place to face off for the bronze medal. Some sports, like judo, taekwondo, and wrestling, hand out two bronze medals in a system called repechage, but competitors still need to fight it out to get on the podium. You can read more and see the full list of sports at Olympics.com (note that this link is from 2021, so sports may have updated their procedures since Tokyo).

Now, put yourself in the athlete’s place. You’ve worked hard to get to the Olympics – lots of training, sacrifice, and also victories along the way. You’ve had a good run in the competition and are near the top of the group at the actual Olympic. You are on track for the finals.

But then, something happens. Maybe it is a missed shot, a momentary lapse in concentration, the wind blew the shuttlecock a little more than you expected. Suddenly, everything comes crashing down around you. It’s also happening on one of the biggest stages of sports in the world, with millions of people watching.

Now what? Well, if you are in one of those sports where the bronze medal is a contested medal, you don’t just collect your medal. Now you have to pick yourself up, and gear up for one more match, one more fight to see whether you can get a spot on the podium. You need to figure out how to overcome whatever challenges that earlier loss presented to your sense of self and go one more round.

That’s got to be a tough fight, and for me it is why the bronze medal is in some ways more impressive than a gold medal. There is more to overcome – it’s more of a challenge to regain momentum than it is to sustain it.

This may be why research has shown that bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists. A study of medalists from the 1992 Olympics found that bronze medalists were happier than silver medalists.  The theory was that silver medalist felt they had lost the gold, while bronze medals felt they had made the podium. The Washington Post had a similar story with a similar conclusion in 2016.

While that is probably true for the pure third place sports, I think there is more to it than that in other sports. Bronze medalists proved themselves through some of the toughest adversity, and I imagine they knew that on some level.

So as we watch the Paris 2024 Olympics this summer, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that when it comes to a true test of an athlete, the bronze may the highest award after all.

–Ben Jackson

Photo: Thomas Deschamps for Paris 2024.