Pyeongchang Olympics Quagmire: The Crushing Success of Nearly Winning

One of the peculiarities of the Olympics is how the podium is structured, with the silver and bronze medalists typically standing at equal heights below the winning, gold medalist. Is that design meant to simulate a spirit of harmonious equality? Or is it actually a nod to the reality that silver medalists often feel more like they’re “second banana” than “second best” given high hopes of winning it all?

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The reaction of members of the women’s hockey team when Canada “won” the silver medal after a long history of Olympic success on the ice rink speaks to a common emotional reality. Note the downturned corners of the mouth of these players and their teary, unfocused eyes. Even more obvious was Jocelyne Larocque’s reaction: almost immediately removing the silver medal she received, only to later issue an apology for “letting my emotions get the better of me.” See The Washington Post’s coverage.

It’s not easy almost winning, as several studies have shown. Should you need evidence of that conclusion, check out:

Then again, coming in 3rd isn’t necessarily a picnic, either, as Slovenia’s Zan Kosir’s face confirms.

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Unexpected victories are among the sweetest, of course. The victory by the U.S. in men’s curling was astonishing, as the team’s jaw-dropping surprise looks confirm.

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To others, however, nothing has been more surprising than how much the U.S. athletes have struggled to reach the podium at this year’s winter Olympics in South Korea.  Theories of why America has been buried by Norway in the medal count range from “we always struggle” in events with names like Nordic Combined to having athletes this time around who are either too old to hold up physically or too young to handle the stress. What could be the way forward, at least emotionally speaking when buckling under stress is apparently a major issue? Based on my own studies of great athletes in my upcoming book, Famous Faces Decoded, as well as a previous blog on tennis stars, let me suggest a novel solution. Groom winners by having the U.S. Olympic trainers focus on developing athletes prone to disgust. A curling upper lip and a wrinkled nose are the classic signs of disgust, an emotion about rejecting what doesn’t taste or smell good: like not being a winner. My conclusion is that disgust, not anger, can propel athletes forward to victories as much as any other emotion around.

In that spirit, I noticed the reaction of Finland’s Livo Niskaen on winning gold in the 50-kilometer mass start event.  Note the raised upper lip that accompanies the whoop of joy.

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