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 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT