Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Is a gold medal all that matters?

By Amy Bass
updated 3:38 PM EST, Tue February 11, 2014
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
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 1:01 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT