Friday, August 15, 2008

Seconds & Thirds

As I watch the Olympics, I've thought about the way medals are awarded. As most everyone knows, the person who comes in first wins the gold, the second place finisher gets the silver and the third place finisher gets to take home the bronze. While it's a much better system than the typical American winner-take-all paradigm, it still strikes me as rather odd -- when you consider the nature of competitive sports AND the phraseology involved with certain words.

In the popular lexicon, the words second and third do not tend to signify something exceptional. In fact, they typically denote something that is far from the standard. Here are some examples:
  • Second Banana - a performer in a subordinate role;
  • Second Fiddle - to occupy a secondary status;
  • Secondhand - not from the original source or owner;
  • Second-String - subordinate or inferior in rank;
  • Third-Class - on the Titanic it meant steerage class;
  • Third Person - a reference to someone else;
  • Third-Rate - inferior, or very poor quality.
So, while finishing second or third is not something most athletes would generally crow about, they do hold some level of significance in Olympic and World Championship events.

As an American, though, it simply appears strange to see someone jumping up and down with joy as the result of NOT winning. While the second place finisher can, at least, have the consolation that only one person finished better than they did, the third place finisher doesn't even enjoy that luxury!

Can you imagine the third place finisher in the upcoming presidential election strutting around on TV flashing their bronze medal for all to see? "I'm just so happy to place in the medals," this person would chirp. "I feel I represented my party and home state very well and I'm pleased as punch!"

Actually, maybe it wouldn't be such a bad concept after all.


  1. don't worry, we belgians didn't win anything yet ... :)

  2. Bert, you spoke too soon. I noticed that the Belgians claimed a Gold Medal plus, I think, a Bronze.


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