UPDATE: This story ran during the London Summer Olympics. 18 months later, there's still no good reason to have a third-place medal.
Why does the bronze medal exist?
That's not just a rhetorical question. I've been asking a lot of people who you'd think would know. Tony Bijkerk didn't, and he's the Secretary General of the International Society of Olympic Historians. (The ISOH is headquartered in Holland in the village of Fochteloo, which is in the municipality of Ooststellingwerf.) Jim Greensfelder of Sharonville, Ohio didn't know, and he wrote the Olympic Medals Reference Guide AND a history of the 1904 St. Louis Olympics. That's relevant because St. Louis' Games, we do know, are the first at which bronze medals were awarded to third-place finishers. (The prizes in 1896 and 1900 — generally, as these things weren't totally formalized yet — were silver for first and bronze for second.) But even St. Louisians don't seem to recall why they decided to do the third-place thing. The Missouri Museum didn't know, and neither did anyone from the St. Louis Public Library. The International Olympic Committee's own Olympic Studies Centre sent me a polite e-mail informing me that "based on the documentation we have available to us…we are unable to answer your question of 'why' the Organizing Committee for the 1904 Olympic Games decided to give medals for first, second and third place."
It's not surprising that no one can remember a good reason to give out a third-place medal: there isn't one. For starters, they're ineffective as commemoration. There are no famous or infamous bronze medalists. Do you remember Phillip Edwards or Adrianus de Jong? Edwards, a Canadian sprinter, and de Jong, a Dutch fencer (from The Hague, which is 219 km from Ooststellingwerf municipality), are the athletes who've won the most bronze medals without a silver or gold. But there's no cachet, even tragic Buffalo Bills cachet, in being a perennial second runner-up. Not making it over the last hill might be indicative of greatness thwarted by a dramatic flaw, but not making it over the second-to-last hill is just indicative of needing to spend more time on hill training.
Silver medals at least make intuitive sense. There's an honor in being the last, toughest obstacle to a victory, implicit in the way we remember the winners who had fearsome competitors (Pete Sampras/Andre Agassi, for example) with a respect surpassing that which we have for those who defeated relatively anonymous fields (Ivan Lendl). A worthy silver medalist is essential for the most memorable golds. Usain Bolt's most blazingly mind-bending (and only world-record setting) run of the London Games came in the 4x100 relay, when a brilliant American performance forced Bolt to run his anchor leg with as much desperation as Usain Bolt is ever forced to run with, just to win the race. (The United States' time in the relay tied the previous world record.) Michael Phelps's most famous race is his photo finish against Milorad Cavic of Serbia in Beijing's 100m butterfly. Put another way, the spirit of the silver medal is the spirit of Rocky. The spirit of the bronze medal is the spirit of Brad, which is a movie that doesn't exist about a guy, Brad Jenkins, who Rocky beat before he fought Apollo Creed.
This all goes to explain the sinking feeling one gets when coming across a third-place game or match. (That and the essential un-covetability of bronze. A "golden age" is a time of peak greatness. The Bronze Age is when people learned how to make, like, spears. Spears — can they even get wifi?)
"But Ben," you might be saying, "the Olympics aren’t just about the viewers at home, demanding entertainment while we lie on the floor, eating pretzels with cheese pre-baked inside them. The Olympics are also about the athletes themselves." I’ll say to you, yes, and those pretzels are delicious, especially when you melt a bowl of Velveeta so you can cover the outside in cheese as well. And then I’ll say that it turns out that the bronze actually does have adverse effects on athletes — specifically silver-medal winners. A 1995 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examined the relative mental states of silver and bronze winners and found that bronze recipients seemed both happier and more generally optimistic after their competitions than silver recipients. In one facet of the study, college students who weren’t sports fans — and didn’t have any information about who finished where — were shown videos of athletes who’d just finished their races/matches; the students were asked to simply rate how happy each athlete seemed. Silver winners averaged a 5 on a 1 to 10 scale and bronze winners 6.7. (The study’s authors used pre-Olympics Sports Illustrated medal predictions to make sure that they weren't just stumbling on a random group of bronze winners who’d way outperformed expectations; in fact, it turned out, the silver winners in the study had done better than expected and bronze winners hadn’t.)
What the hell kind of prize makes people feel better for doing worse? Simply qualifying for the Olympics is a great achievement, and “Olympic athlete” a title of great prestige; I think that’s enough for third-place finishers, like it is for everyone who finishes fourth and thereafter.
While I was finishing up this piece, I got an e-mail from Tony Bijkerk (the “pride of Ooststellingwerf”). I’d sent a follow-up to his original response to my questions about bronze, worried maybe that I’d worded my query imprecisely or in an idiomatic way that his (highly-functional, of course) command of English didn’t quite recognize. In the follow-up I put it directly: “Do we have any idea why bronze was added?” Reads his reply: “No Sir, we have not!” Indeed, Mr. Bijkerk — indeed, world — we have not!