Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Is a gold medal all that matters?

By Amy Bass
February 11, 2014 -- Updated 2038 GMT (0438 HKT)
Sports fans have had plenty of exciting action to cheer at Russia's first Winter Olympics. Sports fans have had plenty of exciting action to cheer at Russia's first Winter Olympics.
HIDE CAPTION
Sochi on show
National pride
Taking part
Revitalizing Russian sport
Coming together
Olympic partnerships
Inspiring people
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Amy Bass: "You don't win silver, you lose gold" is the way some Sochi competitors feel
  • Bass: While some shed tears over getting a bronze, others like Jenny Jones are jublilant
  • She says Heidi Kloser broke her leg but still walked with her team as an Olympian
  • Bass: For others, no medal necessary, Olympic spirit is not winning, but just "to take part"

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."

Amy Bass
Amy Bass

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.

Canadian speed skater Hamelin takes gold
Did Obama snub Putin?

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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amy Bass.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT