Sometimes bronze is the medal with the brightest lustre. Or perhaps the less gifted runners in a race are correct – the greatest reward is simply participating.
I think it was Bridgitte Hartley’s bronze medal celebration on the podium at the London 2012 Olympic Games that first had me thinking about the relative happiness and fulfilment of the three medallists who share the podium at any major championships or indeed at any sporting competition. (Bridgitte Hartley, for those who don’t know, is our much-loved sprint canoeist, whose bronze medal in the Olympic canoe K-1 500 metres race in 2012 came as a delightful surprise to South African sports fans, and perhaps even to herself.)
At the event medal ceremony Hartley was bubbling with excitement, in stark contrast to the sombre looking gold and silver medallists from Hungary and Ukraine. I think she may even have shed a tear as she leapt into the air and waved enthusiastically at her cheering teammates. Clearly Hartley’s medal was the highlight of her career, and she was going to savour every moment of her success.
Of course, what I discuss in these few lines is a huge generalisation, and there are massive and many exceptions to my argument, but I do believe that it is quite often true that the three medallists on a podium convey the same emotions as those who shared the 2012 Olympic women’s K-1 podium that day.
I have an extensive collection of athletics books and articles and while brushing off the dust, and browsing through a few of these old athletics magazines, I was struck by a striking photograph of the finish of the 1972 Olympic men’s 1500 metres final. In the photograph Finland’s Pekka Vasala has his arms raised in salute and triumph as he realises he has just won the gold medal. A short stride behind Vasala, the defending champion, Kipchoge Keino, looks angry and disappointed in second place, but New Zealand’s Rod Dixon is celebrating, shouting excitedly, almost like Brigitte Hartley. He still has 5 strides to take to the finish line, but he knows that he is the bronze medallist.
Few photos sum up the attitudes of the three medallists in a major competition better than this one.
I can also speak from personal experience. While I have never achieved the lofty status of being an Olympic athlete, (Brigitte is there any chance I trade a Comrades medal or two for your Olympic bronze?) In my time I have stood on all three steps of the Comrades marathon podium, and as the years have passed, I’ve had time to contemplate and observe the impact those three steps can make on the contentment and satisfaction of three athletes.
Gold medallists are obviously both proud and delighted to have won but there is occasionally an aura of solemnity and disquiet about them as if they have suddenly realised that being the champion brings with it a level of responsibility and pressure and delivers the nagging question: “Ok I’ve achieved my dream, (After many months, possibly years of intense training and preparation) What now? What do I do now with the rest of my life? Do I try and defend my title? Will I become a target for others in my sport? How else can I find a sense of purpose in my life?
I remember running for the Transvaal B team in the South African 10km. championships in Bloemfontein many years ago. At that race the pressures and public expectations of being a Comrades champion were driven home to me. From the start to the finish that race was a high intensity battle and exhausting sprint for me. It took me five kilometres to catch Zola Budd, the ladies champion. I recall being delighted with my time, which was a shade over 31 minutes. I had run that time in the high altitude, rarified Free State air. I think I finished in 25th place.
As I stood at the finish, bent over, trying not to be sick and gasping for air a very disappointed young lad asked me in a concerned voice
“Oom, hoekom het jy so swak gehardloop?” (Sir, why did you run so badly ?)
I understood his thinking; If I could win a 90 kilometre ultra a 10km race should be no problem. To my young fan my performance was nothing short of disastrous.
I would be lying if I tried to argue that I didn’t enjoy being an former Comrades champion. Indeed, it is a singular honour. However, I have learnt over the years that victory is not the panacea for all one’s problems. Indeed, in many cases, they can be exacerbated. The very witty and wise Oscar Wilde may have been addressing champion athletes when he penned the words “Sometimes when the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers “
Silver medallists are often the least happy of the select three. They can appear both uneasy and dejected on the podium. They often look lost in thought while standing on the podium as if pondering about what might have been. And isn’t it interesting that of the three metals, silver is the one that tarnishes rapidly and must be regularly polished to make it gleam and shine. The very act of polishing is a constant reminder of “What might have been”.
The current ladies Comrades champion and up run record holder, Gerda Steyn, once remarked; “silver sucks, hey Bruce.”
I understood what her disdainful remark meant. Both Gerda and I had finished second in the Comrades before we were fortunate enough to win the Comrades the following year. I can still recall those 365 days of angst, and how very few days passed that year without my thinking about the 2 minute gap that separated me from Alan Robb, the winner.
“If I had just believed in myself more, if I had not let him get so far ahead at halfway, if, if only…. A newspaper article written at that time taunted me, “So often the nearly man, when will Bruce learn to win?”
The pain of losing gold and having to settle for silver is nowhere better illustrated than at the 1973 Comrades marathon where Gordon Baker was passed by Dave Levick two kilometres from the finish line. In those days Baker was known as the “nearly man “. Despite a string of top 10, and agonisingly close, top three finishes in the famous ultra, he had never won the race. In 1973 he surged into the lead a handful of kilometres from the Durban finish line. Baker’s seconds gave him a last drink, and urged him on
“Enjoy it Gordon, you’re going to win.”
Baker could hardly believe his good fortune. His dream was about to come true. He was approaching the finish stadium and was busy preparing his victory speech when the dream was shattered. He enjoyed the lead for half a kilometre before the flying Levick caught him. Dave Levick understood the pain of almost winning. He had finished second two years earlier. As he passed Baker he is purported to have gently tapped him on the shoulder and muttered,
“I’m sorry Gordon”
Baker was so crestfallen that he lost almost 4 minutes in the final approach to the stadium.
Years later Gordon Baker was sitting astride the Comrades marathon lead motorbike driving ahead of me as I lead the race. When I faltered on one of the final hills he spun around on his seat and urged me on;
“Please don’t slow down Bruce” he shouted, “I can’t bear to watch you surrender the lead.”
And then there are the bronze medallists, the Bridgitte Hartleys of the sporting World, who often appear the most delighted of the three receiving their medals on the victory podium.
Critical thinker and psychologist Gad Saad has argued that Logic and economics tell us that silver is more valuable than bronze and yet in many instances on the podium bronze is the more treasured of the two metals. I agree with him.
On the last day of the Tokyo Olympics Botswana’s 4X 400 metre relay team beautifully illustrated the joy of a bronze medal podium finish when they celebrated their 3rd place by waving their vibrant blue national flag and embracing each other on the finish line. The Botswana team included 35 year old Isaac Makwala who seemed so overwhelmed by his bronze medal that for a while he sat with his head bowed.
My third place in the 1979 Comrades marathon remains one of my favourite races. It was a race full of happy memories. That day I would have sold my soul for a finish in the top, and to my utter joy I finished on the podium. A friend who was watching in the stadium that day described my final few hundred metres of running as a giant beaming smile on legs. The night after the race I pinned the medal to my bedside table so that it would be the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes in the morning. From time to time, I still glance at that shining deep bronze medal and smile.
If ever proof were needed about the value of a bronze medal for any athlete, then we need do no more than study the reaction of those runners who have placed 4th in a major competition. (Fourth position has to be the most agonising and disappointing finishing position.) The great South African sprinter, Akani Simbine has finished 5th and 4th in the last two Olympic 100 metres finals. He is now more than ever determined to correct this at the next Olympics. I am sure he would treasure a bronze medal.
But there is actually a 4th step on the podium. It is a legendary step and it is an honourable step and that is the one that is often most treasured. That step honours the finisher, the participant who along with millions of others competes for the “ordinary finisher’s medal”. This is the least glamorous medal and yet is desired by more athletes than any other. This medal is awarded to those who conquer the greatest opponent of all, themselves. These are the runners who, despite not having chosen their parents correctly, triumph by overcoming their genetic limitations. The achievement of overcoming their human frailties is as significant as standing alone on the top step of the podium. No wonder so many of these ordinary participants finish races with tears of joy on their cheeks and with their arms held aloft. And no wonder the most dramatic moments of most races are not those when the winners break the tape but when the crowds scream and cheer and urge the last competitors home before the final, dreadful cut-off gun is fired. These are the most revered athletes of all and there is no medal, gold, silver, or bronze nor step on the podium that sufficiently honours their courage and tenacity.
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