In defense of silver and bronze



One of the moments I won’t forget from these Olympics is the end of the men’s 100-meter breaststroke final. Great Britain’s Adam Peaty set a world record, and wild celebration erupted in the pool afterward.

But the loudest screams of jubilation didn’t come from Peaty. They were from Cody Miller, an American who claimed the bronze medal in the event.

Why was Miller so happy about finishing third?

Because he wasn’t supposed to make the podium. His times coming into the meet weren’t as fast as the other top contenders, weren’t as fast as American teammate Kevin Cordes, who set an American record in the event in the U.S. Olympic trials.  The fact that Miller’s even at the Olympics is amazing, as he has overcome a condition called pectus excavatum, which diminishes lung capacity and causes his chest to appear sunken or caved in.  He took up swimming as a child to alleviate its effects.

In Rio, Miller outdid himself. He swam the fastest 100 breaststroke of his life, he broke Cordes’ American record and he earned a bronze medal that no one expected him to win.

And according to Piers Morgan, he is a loser.

Morgan, the British talk show host and provocateur, stirred up the Twitterverse last week by opining that anything short of a gold medal is failure and anyone falling short of first place is a loser.

And yes, predictably, he even tweeted a Ricky Bobby meme.

In prime self-promotional form, Morgan then retweeted readers who agreed with him and berated those who didn’t as “losers” themselves, going so far as to point out the finishes of any Olympic athletes who took issue with him. When a gold medalist, four-time Olympic rowing champion Matthew Pinsent, called BS (in glorious fashion, I might add), Morgan insisted that Pinsent really agreed with him and was “just too PC to admit it.”

He later attempted to soften his stance by claiming it is “not a derogatory comment, just a fact,” and expanded on his thoughts in a column in the Daily Mail. But he knew exactly what he was saying, and took the opportunity to beat his own chest when “Team (Great Britain) has now won 2 Golds since my column was posted,” as though his column actually played some role in it.

“If you don’t win Gold, then you have lost,” Morgan wrote, “and you have also self-evidently under-achieved compared to the person who won.”

OK, first of all, that is a spectacularly convenient misuse of the word “underachieved.” Merriam-Webster defines an underachiever as “one that fails to attain a predicted level of achievement or does not do as well as expected.” So underachieving is not defined by a person’s performance compared to others. It’s defined by a person’s performance compared to what is expected of that person or their previous achievements.

Cody Miller finished third in the 100-meter breaststroke, but he did not underachieve. He swam the fastest 100-meter breaststroke of his life. That is why he was happy.

Morgan noted that neither Michael Phelps nor Usain Bolt would ever be satisfied with anything less than gold. Well, of course they wouldn’t. They are the best in the world in their respective sports. For them to finish anywhere below first, they would have underachieved. They would not have performed as well as they can.

The kind of dominance exhibited by Phelps, Bolt and Katie Ledecky is rare. One does not need to belittle the other competitors to celebrate it. In fact, belittling the other competitors cheapens it.

Miller had every right to celebrate. What Morgan doesn’t seem to understand is that there’s a difference between being happy with how you performed and being content with it. While Miller was elated with his bronze because it was the best swim of his life so far, you can bet he’ll be hitting the pool even harder in the next four years to try to turn that bronze into gold next time.

What was Morgan’s point in all this, other than reminding people who he is? To berate silver and bronze medalists? Not really. He was clearly unhappy with his native country’s celebration of its athletes for simply making the podium, but he also used the discussion as a springboard for an attack on today’s “PC-crazed world” and its participation-trophy culture.

Children need to be given the latitude to find what they’re good at, Morgan argued, and that’ll never happen unless they’re told the truth about what they’re not good at. That makes perfectly good sense – and yes, there are often too many runner-up ribbons at children’s sporting events.

But Morgan gives children too little credit. They understand that a runner-up ribbon doesn’t mean they’ve won. They know the difference between gold and silver. They understand the significance of the big trophy.

For some kids, a third-place ribbon is worthless, even an insult. For others, it may be that little bit of encouragement they need to keep at it, to know they’re making progress and their work is paying off.

The Piers Morgans of the world want us to see life as a zero-sum game, filled only with winners and losers, and all apology and compromise and even common courtesy is weakness, admission of failure. But we will all fail at times. We’ll all enjoy minor victories and suffer temporary setbacks — even Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt haven’t won every race. None of them define us, unless we allow them to.

Cody Miller understands full well that he isn’t the best 100-meter breaststroker in the world. But he also isn’t a failure. And if Piers Morgan can’t see that, then he’s the loser.

Categories: Mystery Punch

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