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Medal metal

Settling for silver


SPOT THE DIFFERENCE: Rajyavardhan Rathore (left), India's first Olympic silvermedallist at the double trap podium at the Athens Olympics in August 2004

The Olympic gold medal is fulfillment while a bronze secures your place on the podium. Heartbreaking fourth-place finishes can act as moral wins for medal-starved countries. Even participating for its own sake gives pure joy to someone from a disadvantaged land.

The silver medal can be all of the above. But it can also be a curse, one with a scar that just won't go. It comes after a dreaded defeat, reminds that you are not up there. So close yet so far, a potential kiss turned into a slap.
Sure, the Olympic silver can be a great achievement. To win it requires all ingredients of champion: a marriage of talent, hard work and luck. We may applaud the silver medallist but is he at peace with himself?

Silver medallists trudge on to the podium with heavy hearts. They are neither relieved like the bronze medallists (" at least I am among the medallist" ) nor elated like the gold medallists (" this is what I live for" ) by the national anthem at the medal ceremony. And, if you are an athlete, swimmer, wrestler, boxer or a racquet sports player, you know that you are either outclassed by your rival or edged out by a close margin.

In athletics and swimming, the slipping of a gold unravels before you when you are beaten off the block or overtaken by the rival with more oxygen in the lungs and more will power in the heart. In tennis, your opponent may have played a crucial point with more velocity behind his shots. In boxing, you could have been humiliated with a knockout. Some sportsmen are lucky to be a part of those sports where the second-best finish doesn't unravel in front of you. Like shooting (Rajyavardhan Singh's silver in Athens is an example), where you have an option not to look at the scores or in some other sports, where you are not aware about the leader playing elsewhere. And in team sports, you can just shrug and say well, the team wasn't good enough and that explains the silver.

Winning a silver can also dampen a sportsman's spirit. Very few can wipe out a silver with a gold in the next Olympics. You have to be superhuman for that and must have peaked at the right time to get a second shot in the fouryear cycle. And hope that the mental scars have vanished by then. And if you are an ambitious silver medallists born at the wrong time with no chance of redemption in the next Games, you just weep with the silver.

Take an opinion poll among athletes. 'Would you settle for the silver?' Chances are the question will be answered with silence. It's clearly the 'most unwanted' medal. After losing in the semifinals, players can settle for the bronze with a playoff. But to settle for the silver after losing the final is much harder. It's a break-up after the engagement.

Silver medallists don't edge out the losing semifinalist like Leander Paes did to Fernando Meligeni in 1996. They don't win a consolation medal (the bronze), thereby ending on a winning note. Instead, they suffer the defeat of gold, in front of cameras, under the spotlight, hurting their own and country's aspirations, and watching the winner break into intense celebration.

As you applaud the Olympic champions and other fighters, please spare a thought for the silver medal and the silver medallists. Your purest form of sympathy will not turn that silver into gold but a bit of the impure - gold medallists caught in the dope tests - can do that for them. That's like waiting for science and some divine intervention. Like Carl Lewis winning the 100m gold at Seoul 1988 after Ben Johnson tested positive. But even such gold medals come with a footnote. If the IOC wants to hand a fitting redemption for the silver-turned-gold winners like Lewis, they have to award them at the Olympic Games. On the podium, with the anthem, stadium roar et al.

But hey, is the silver medal that bad? It can be a ghastly feeling for the second-best finisher. But winning the silver offers new hope to his countrymen : if the silver is possible, gold can't be so out of reach. Australia, initially proud of an Olympic hockey silver after defeat to Pakistan at Mexico 1968, were benumbed by New Zealand at Montreal 1976, then devastated by Germany at Barcelona 1992. The Kookaburras worked tirelessly, finally winning at Athens 2004 to end one of sport's biggest travails. Abhinav Bindra winning the gold in Beijing 2008 was, in some way, culmination of Rathore's silver.

Silver burns the athlete from inside but it relays the flame of optimism to the new dreamer, compatriot, successor. New heart, new soul, new brain and a new body, then attempt to take it to the next level. Citius, altius, fortius!

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