In Defense Of Bronze: The True Mettle Of The Metal Of The 3rd-Place Medal

Aug 11, 2016

Gold, Silver ... and Bronze.

As hierarchies of merit go, it's got long historical legs, stretching all the way back to the ancient Greeks.

Not — as many believe — to the ancient Olympic Games, however; those athletes just got olive wreaths for their trouble. (Well, olive wreaths and sunburn, one supposes, as competitors observed the tradition of gymnos, or nudity.)

No, it was the Greek poet Hesiod who first adopted a metallic taxonomy for assigning value to non-metallic things. He broke down the Five Ages of Man thus:

First came The Golden Age, in which the very first (perfect, benevolent) humans lived among the gods on Olympus.

The Silver Age occurred after Zeus overthrew his father, Cronus, and men began to war with one another. Zeus eventually destroyed these men for turning away from the gods.

The Bronze Age began when Zeus created a new human race, scrappy and tough, who eventually died in a massive flood.

To those he added an idyllic Heroic Age and a final Iron Age — Hesiod's own era, marked by labor and strife.

Somewhere between 600 and 700 years later, the Roman poet Ovid proposed his own Four Ages of Man (by lopping off Hesiod's Heroic Age, essentially).

Both poets set the template, in the Western World, for breaking the past into metals of different values — the further back you go, the better/more precious things get. (Hinduism also breaks the Ages of Man into four periods, or yugas, which are similarly albeit informally designated Golden, Silver, Bronze and Iron.)

Archaeologists, as is their wont, are much more practical. To them, the term "Bronze Age" represents a precise mid-point between the Stone Age and the Iron Age, so named for the tools humans were using, not any inherent value. But then, archaeologists are notorious buzzkills. Let's you and I ignore them.

Where'd Bronze Go?

When the Modern Olympics began in 1896, organizers eagerly adopted the ancient conventions as much as possible. First place winners received an olive wreath and a silver medal; second place winners received a laurel branch and a copper medal.

It wasn't until the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis that the Gold/Silver/Bronze medal hierarchy was first introduced. Since that time, it's come to pervade the culture.

And yet, whenever it's exported and applied to other aspects of life, as it often is, Bronze generally gets left behind: employee health care plans, event sponsorships, credit card companies and frequent flier programs dutifully assign Silver and Gold status levels — but with Silver serving as the ground floor. From there, they often build up and out, adding a Platinum level, a Titanium level, and even a Diamond level (which can't help but seem like cheating, as diamonds are gems, not metals. Pick a schema and stick with it, Delta! It's a little thing called internal consistency, look it up.)

Music sales are certified Silver, Gold and Platinum. Burl Ives sang "Silver and Gold" but somehow never, throughout his long and storied musical career, spared even a single, tremulous note on the subject of bronzed baby shoes.

For most of the last century, there were just two commonly recognized eras of comic book publishing: the Golden Age (late 1930s-early 1950s) and the Silver Age (mid 1950s-early 1970s). The notion of a Bronze Age (now generally designated 1970-1985) came along relatively recently, and it connotes a time when superhero comics grew Byzantine and insular by abandoning the kids market to cater exclusively to hardcore, teen-and-adult fans.

All of this is why, when it comes to its current cultural cachet, bronze can't catch a break; it might as well be corrugated frickin' cardboard.

Hard proof: Both the traditional and modern breakdowns for anniversary gifts designate silver and gold as appropriate for a couple who've powered through 25 and 50 years together, respectively. But bronze? Hallmark, which really should know such things, doesn't include it on the modern list at all, and it only shows up on the traditional list as "Pottery/Bronze" for an ... 8th anniversary.

Eight lousy years. All your marriage needs to do to merit bronze is hang in there just one year longer than Burn Notice. Unless, that is, your friends opt to go the pottery route. Here, we do hereby celebrate your loving commitment with this ceramic duck.

Why Bronze Matters

So here we are: The Olympics' Gold/Silver/Bronze medal schema makes sense only if we think in the dullest, narrowest, purely pecuniary sense. Yes, gold is rare, silver somewhat less so, and the great demand for, and limited supply of, these metals ensure their relative trading values.

But these are athletes we're celebrating. Their feats are examples of human achievement.

Think about that.

Gold and silver? They already exist in the world. They are merely ... found. Stumbled across, as you would a wild potato.

But bronze? Bronze is wholly different. It's something we create. It is a human achievement.

Millennia ago, our ancestors conceived and fashioned something that had never existed in the universe: an alloy of copper and tin, alongside other metals. We, as humans, smelt it and — for the more than 2,000 years it stood as the hardest, most hotly traded metal in the world — we dealt it as well.

That's why every Olympic bronze medalist can take heart. Bronze stands for something, something profound and deeply inspiring about the human experience, that gold and silver never can or will.

Not that they need my pep-talk. As a much-cited 1995 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology noted, winners of Olympic bronze medals are generally happier with their achievement than silver medalists.

According to that paper's authors, bronze medalists are content to earn a spot on the podium. Silver medalists, however, will spend the rest of their lives tasting the victory that eluded them.

(The fact that they, and they alone, will always be able to use their medals to defend themselves from werewolves offers them, I suppose, only very the coldest of comforts.)

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OK, what we're about to hear might sound like Christmas, but think Olympic medals.


BURL IVES: (Singing) Silver and gold, silver and gold - everyone wishes for silver and gold.

SHAPIRO: But what about bronze? Have you ever noticed that airline frequent flyer status begins at Silver - music sales, too - silver, gold, platinum - no bronze. Our pop culture blogger Glen Weldon writes, bronze can't catch a break. It might as well be corrugated cardboard. Glenn is here with a defense of bronze. Welcome back to the studio.


SHAPIRO: I was surprised to learn that gold, silver and bronze have only been the Olympic medal schema for about a hundred years. Why is third place bronze?

WELDON: Well, it goes back to the ancient Greeks but not the ancient Greek Olympic Games because those guys could run around all day and just get a laurel reef for their trouble. Now, it goes back to an ancient poet called Hesiod around 700 B.C. He came up with this idea of the ages of man - golden, silver, bronze, et cetera - with the idea that the farther back you go in time, the better things were. That's a very familiar way of looking at the world I think. But no, the actual medal schema came about in 1904 when the Olympic Games were in St. Louis. That's when they introduced gold, silver, bronze.

SHAPIRO: So why in present-day life does bronze get such a bad rap or just get ignored altogether?

WELDON: Well, you mentioned it. It's grade inflation in frequent flyer miles, in credit card companies, in sponsorship levels. They always start with silver nowadays and lop off bronze completely. And they go silver, gold, titanium, plutonium...

SHAPIRO: Diamond.

WELDON: ...Diamond, which doesn't make any sense if you care about internal consistency because...

SHAPIRO: Because it's not even a metal.

WELDON: ...It's not even a metal.

SHAPIRO: It's a gemstone.

WELDON: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You make an interesting argument for why we should value bronze arguably more highly than silver and gold, especially in the Olympics. Take it away.

WELDON: Well, what are we celebrating at the Olympics, Ari? We are celebrating human achievement, and bronze is a human achievement. It's something we create. It's an alloy of copper, tin and other metals. Silver and gold occur naturally. We stumble across them. We find them. But bronze is something that did not exist in the world before we came up with it about 5,000 years ago. We smelt it, and we traded it in a big way for many thousands of years. And we dealt it as well.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) OK, so as we celebrate human achievement, bronze is a human achievement worth celebrating.

WELDON: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: And in fact, you point to a psychological study from 1995 that says bronze medal winners in the Olympics are even more satisfied with their accomplishments than silver medal winners.

WELDON: Yeah. Researchers looked at the emotional responses of people on the podium back in the 1992 games and concluded that bronze medalists are happy just to be on the podium, and silver medalists are always thinking about the fact that they came so close to victory. Now, you can console them if you want by explaining to them that they do have a defense against werewolves at the hand.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) You're such a nerd. Glen Weldon, who's often a panelist on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast - thank you, Glen.

WELDON: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.