A study of Olympic athletes shows the surprising benefits of coming in second place

Aiming for a higher income.
Aiming for a higher income.
Image: AP photo
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Winning first place isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. When it comes to Olympic track and field, silver medalists have historically outlived athletes who took the gold, based on an analysis of competitions in the decades between 1896 and 1948.

Winners tended to die more than one year earlier than losers, according to the paper by University of Virginia assistant professor Adam Leive, now available online at the Journal of Health Economics. By the age of 80, about half of silver medalists were still alive, compared with a third of gold winners.

The study (pdf) notes that Olympians who came in first and second place weren’t that different from one another. They tended to be similar in height, age, and in other physical attributes and ability. While athletes have been trying to boost performance with drugs for almost as long as sports have been recorded (brandy, strychnine, and cocaine were used in the last century), the research sought to limit this influence by sampling a period that predates the advent of performance boosters like anabolic steroids. Based on past performance between contestants, winning a particular Olympics, held on a single day every four years, appears nearly random, according to Leive’s research.

Yet there seems to be an important divergence between the Olympic athletes who finished a pivotal race a few fractions of a second before their competitors: Silver medalists made more money, and higher income, in turn, appeared correlated with longer lifespans. Notably, the second-place contestants had a tendency to seek higher-paying occupations than the winners after the Olympics were over, based on Leive’s analysis of census data. Some 70% of silver medalists became professional workers, compared to 20% of gold-medal winners, who were more likely to become semi-professional workers or go into sales. Leive found similar results for third- and fourth-place finishers.

It’s worth noting that in the decades leading up to 1948, Olympians were amateur athletes, as professionals weren’t allowed to compete until the 1980s. Winning a gold medal wasn’t the financial windfall that it is today. The esteem of winning a gold medal was the main reward.

Exactly why lower-ranking Olympic athletes  pursued higher-paying careers remains something of a mystery. Did the winners seek out riskier lifestyles after their moment of fame? Were they burdened by disappointment after reaching the pinnacle of their careers so early in life? Leive’s analysis of newspaper coverage found that gold medalists were indeed showered with far more attention than the rest of the finishers, but didn’t find “strong support” for a link between media exposure and mortality. He was unable to analyze whether there was a higher instance of drug or alcohol abuse among gold medalists, which was another key limitation in the study’s analysis.

That said, the study does shed light on how pivotal life events can have long-lasting consequences. And while money may not buy happiness, but it does seem to be associated with a longer life.