Five-ring Circus

Silver Medal Face

The saddest-looking second-place finishers in Olympic history.

 losing their women's gold medal ice hockey game against Canada at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic.

Team USA’s hockey team stands dejected after losing their women’s gold medal ice hockey game against Canada.

Photo by Gary Hershorn/Reuters

At the medal ceremony for Sochi’s women’s hockey tournament, the bronze-medal-winning Swiss accepted their prizes cheerfully and waved their bouquets. So did the triumphant Canadians, who had validated their nation’s status as hockey’s homeland by rallying from a 2–0 deficit to beat the United States. In the middle were the Americans. Some players were in tears as they gamely bowed their heads to accept their ribbons. No one smiled.

Welcome to the phenomenon of Silver Medal Face. Academic studies have found that silver medalists are less happy with their reward than the bronze medalists they’ve outperformed. Third-place finishers are thrilled to be on the podium. Silver medalists—particularly those who’ve just lost championship games—are still in the grip of self-recrimination and gold medal envy.


San Francisco State University psychology professor David Matsumoto and Bob Willingham of World of Judo magazine conducted a study of Silver Medal Face by examining photos of judo competitors at the 2004 Athens Games. They found that 13 of 14 gold medalists smiled at the end of their matches. So did 18 of 26 bronze medalists. The silver medalists were either blank-faced or rueful, and the ones “who displayed something displayed discrete, negative emotions.” On the medal stand, they were much more likely than other athletes to display forced smiles.

Now, a tour of some of the sourest second-place finishers in Olympic history.

Kayla McMaroney poses with her silver medal on the podium of the women's vault final of the artistic gymnastics.
McKayla Maroney.

Photo by Thomas Coex/AFP/GettyImages


McKayla Maroney, women’s vault, gymnastics, 2012: Maroney became an Internet meme after pulling a dour, tight-mouthed face on the medal stand. The “not impressed” gymnast was Photoshopped in front of the Sphinx, at the Apollo XI moon landing, and in the White House situation room during the killing of Osama Bin Laden. When Maroney actually visited the White House, she and President Obama posed together in her trademark squinch, showing she was in fact a good sport.

Silver medalist Japan's Mika Sugimoto poses on the podium of the women's +78kg judo contest.
Mika Sugimoto.

Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/GettyImages


Mika Sugimoto, judo, 2012: The Japanese judoka was so upset about losing the heavyweight match to Cuba’s Idalys Ortiz that she screwed her face into a tight pout on the medal stand.

Dejected Team USA players look on after receiving the silver medal won during the ice hockey men's gold medal game between USA and Canada on day 17 of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.
Team USA in 2010.

Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images


U.S. men’s hockey team, 2010: Team USA was uniformly solemn when accepting its silver medals after an overtime defeat at the hands of Canada. They weren’t as devastated as this year’s women’s team, though, because a) they hadn’t blown a lead, and b) they were all going back to the NHL, where they earned millions of dollars and still had a chance to win a Stanley Cup.

USA's Rulon Gardner (C) stands with his gold medal alongside silver medallist Alexandre Kareline.
USA’s Rulon Gardner (C) stands with his gold medal alongside silver medallist Aleksandr Karelin (R) of Russia and Dmitry Debelka of Belarus.

Photo by Reuters


Aleksandr Karelin, Greco-Roman wrestling, 2000: Going into the Sydney Olympics, the Russian super-heavyweight had never lost a match in international competition, and considered himself a symbol of his nation’s strength and endurance. Then American Rulon Gardner broke his grip during the gold medal match, becoming the first wrestler ever to score a point on Karelin. Karelin’s icy gulag death stare during the medal ceremony is one of the most terrifying sights in Olympic history. (Still a Russian Olympic hero, Karelin participated in the torch-lighting ceremony in Sochi.)

Michelle Kwan (L), Tara Lipinski (C), and Chen Lu.

Photo by Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images


Michelle Kwan, figure skating, 1998: At the Nagano Games, Kwan burst into tears in the “kiss and cry” after realizing she wouldn’t catch fellow American Tara Lipinski. By the medal ceremony, though, Kwan had recovered her composure—bronze medalist Chen Lu of China looked much more stricken on the podium.

Matt Ghaffari of the US sobs on the podium after losing to Russian Alexander Karelin in the Olympic super heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestling final 23 July. Karelin took the gold.
Matt Ghaffari.

Photo by IOP/AFP/Getty Images


Matt Ghaffari, Greco-Roman wrestling, 1996: If it wasn’t easy for Karelin to accept defeat, it wasn’t easy for his opponents, either. American Matt Ghaffari wept on the medal stand after losing to the Russian Bear.

Carl Lewis of the United States (left) stands with Ben Johnson of Canada (center) and Linford Christie of Great Britain after completion of the 100 meter final at the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
Carl Lewis (left) stands with Ben Johnson (center) and Linford Christie.

Photo by Gray Mortimore/Allsport/Getty Images


Carl Lewis, 100-meter run, 1988: Lewis had been accusing winner Ben Johnson of steroid use for years before these Olympics, so he had a reason to feel resentful about taking second place. Lewis’ scowl is a classic contrast to bronze medalist Linford Christie’s sunny expression. Days later, Johnson tested positive for stanozolol, vindicating Lewis and promoting him to the top of the podium.

Luz Long (R) with Jesse Owens (C) and Naoto Tajima.

Wikimedia Commons/German Federal Archive

Luz Long, long jump, 1936: Long, who became a friend and admirer of gold medalist Jesse Owens, maintained a soldier’s bearing as he received his silver medal in Berlin, performing the Nazi salute for his nation’s flag.*

*Correction, Feb. 22, 2014: This post originally misstated that Adolf Hitler snubbed Jesse Owens by not attending the American’s medal ceremony. Hitler didn’t acknowledge any winners after the first day of competition at the Berlin Games.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sochi Olympics.