Editor's note: Amy Bass, a professor of history at The College of New Rochelle, is widely published on the cultural history of sports, including her book "Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete." She is a veteran of eight Olympics as the supervisor of NBC's Research Room, for which she won an Emmy in 2012. On Twitter @bassab1
(CNN) -- The look on moguls skier Hannah Kearney's face said it all: A bronze medal felt like a loss to the defending Olympic champion. After posting the top score in the qualifying round, it seemed her quest to become the first freestyle skier to win two gold medals was secure. But a mistake on the top of the course in the final round left her with a 21.49, a bronze medal score.
After finally regaining her composure, the 24-year-old American tried to find a bright side: "It's really unfortunate it's at the Olympics, but I'm sure something good will come of it. I'm just not sure what it is yet."
At the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, Nike launched a controversial advertising campaign: "You don't win silver -- you lose gold." The company pulled the ads after many complained that it violated the Olympic spirit.
Kearney, it seems, would agree, as she later said she was proud to bring the Olympic medal home, albeit one of the wrong color. She is not alone. In 2008, a tepid controversy arose regarding who had "won" the medal count -- the unofficial tallying of medals that rose to prominence during the Cold War. At the Beijing Olympics, the United States figured itself atop the medal count with 45 total, 14 of which were gold; the Chinese -- with 41 total -- put itself on top with 26 golds.
Although the Olympic Charter states that competitions are between individuals and teams, not countries, a medal's worth depends on who is holding it. While Kearney shed tears over her bronze, British snowboarder Jenny Jones expressed jubilation over hers in slopestyle. Having won Great Britain's very first Olympic medal in a snow sport, Jones could barely contain her joy over her surprise third place finish, and the mayor of her hometown, Bristol, plans to welcome her back with a grand celebration.
But bronzes are not just happy occasions when they are surprises. Veteran Alpine skier Julia Mancuso arrived in Sochi as the most decorated American woman in Olympic Alpine history, 1 gold and 2 silvers, and added to that haul on her first day of competition a bronze in the Super Combined. Coming off a relatively miserable season, and always a question mark in slalom, Mancuso has been known to save her best for the most high-profile moments, exemplified by her silver in the same event in Vancouver.
Her successful debut in Sochi -- and she's by no means done -- gives Mancuso a medal of every color -- the bronze completed her set. Was she happy? "I got a medal today," she crowed afterward, looking just as ebullient as gold medalist Maria Hoefl-Riesch.
Mancuso's seasoned enthusiasm was equaled by the American figure skaters, who captured bronze in the inaugural team competition. With the exception of ice dancers Charlie White and Meryl Davis, predictions for U.S. skaters in Sochi have been gloomy, meaning that any medal -- bronze or otherwise -- was better than none at all.
The opposite could be said for snowboarding legend Shaun White. Some competitors met with vitriol his decision to withdraw from slopestyle to stay healthy and focus on halfpipe. Perhaps critics should give him a break. For White, it isn't about a medal of any color. It's about capturing that unprecedented third gold.
For others, of course, no medal is required: Mere participation at the Olympics is victory enough. The majority of the athletes who march in the Opening Ceremony will not spend time on a podium. We know it, and more important, they know it. For these athletes, the Olympic Creed has real meaning: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part."
The day before Opening, during the moguls qualifier in which Kearney did so well, teammate Heidi Kloser broke her leg in a nasty spill. While in the ambulance, she asked her father if she was still an Olympian, to which he replied "Of course you are." The next evening she made it so, getting to Fisht Olympic Stadium in a wheelchair, and then walking, albeit on crutches, with her team during the Parade of Nations.
In Sochi, Kloser had been a serious medal contender, but in the end it wasn't about competing, it was enough just to be there. For Hannah Kearney, at least initially, it wasn't.
Because she didn't win bronze. She lost gold.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amy Bass.