Olympics: Mystery of the elusive silver

By David Leggat

Dick Quax, left, held New Zealand's only silver medal in track and field for years after following Lasse Viren over the line in 1976. Picture / AP
Dick Quax, left, held New Zealand's only silver medal in track and field for years after following Lasse Viren over the line in 1976. Picture / AP

Somewhere near the top of the list of New Zealand's London Olympic ambitions is raising the century of medals.

New Zealand need 10 to reach 100. That number includes three achieved by athletes representing Australasia early last century, and Annelise Coberger's slalom silver at the 1992 Winter Olympics in France.

Apart from trying to figure out where they'll come from, just as intriguing a poser could be: how many of them will be silver?

A glance at the breakdown of New Zealand's Olympic successes reveals an odd anomaly. While the gold and bronze medals won are almost identical - 37 and 36 - New Zealanders have won just 17 silver medals.

A comparison with a range of other countries shows the gulf to be anything but standard. France (191 gold, 212 silver, 234 bronze), Britain (207-255-253), Australia (131-137-164), Spain (34-49-30) and Brazil (20-25-46) illustrate that point.

So what is it about silver? Is it simply one of those unexplainable things? It appears so.

After all, when athletes begin their Olympic quest, depending on their standing, or the quality and breadth of their event, they may feel a strong chance to win gold. Or, they may figure if everything works their way, they could get on to the podium.

A mindset of "I'm chasing a silver medal" simply doesn't make sense.

New Zealand's second place-getters have come from eight sports - cycling, athletics, triathlon, canoeing, equestrian, boxing, rowing and sailing, including windsurfing.

Rowers Cyril Stiles and Fred Thompson started the silver trickle in 1932 in the coxless pair. It took 40 years, or eight Olympics, for the second, also in rowing.

Hayden Roulston in the individual pursuit and Nick Willis in the 1500m at Beijing four years ago are the latest recipients. Willis actually crossed the line third, but was promoted after the winner, Bahrain's Rashid Ramzi, was rubbed out for failing a drug test.

There are six instances of athletes, or combinations, following a gold with a silver medal four years later, or upgrading from silver to gold.

Barbara Kendall's is a unique record. New Zealand's finest boardsailor has a full set in successive Games - gold in 1992 at Barcelona in the inaugural Games for the discipline; silver in Atlanta, and bronze at Sydney in 2000.

She was a driven athlete for whom winning was all, yet she knew going into the final race in Atlanta she could not win gold. Hong Kong's Lee Lai-Shan had too big a margin and did not need to race on the last day.

"That's when it hit me. 'Oh man, I haven't defended my title'. I'd won so many events leading up to it, when it first happened I felt I've failed," she recalled. Her emotions changed a day later.

"When it was time for the medal ceremony I was thinking it was a relief. I was pretty lucky to get silver because my arms had been pumping up. So even though I was disappointed not to win, it took a day to think 'hold on, that is still pretty cool'."

That remains her perspective to this day. Just don't call her the first loser, as some brutally refer to runners-up.

"I think that's a real negative Kiwi attitude. That was an issue I faced because I'd won silver and no one else in the sailing team won a medal in Atlanta. I was still made to feel like a loser. That's really wrong and it's an attitude we've got to stomp out.

"Everyone values gold. It's what everyone remembers. They don't remember people who won silver or bronze. So even though it's a fantastic result we don't tend to value them as much and we should because they're bloody hard to get."

Dick Quax has heard the line and doesn't dwell on it.

"People say it as a throwaway line. I wouldn't get upset by it. I suspect it comes from people who've never achieved much in life anyway."

He too admitted to a crushing sense of disappointment at the time he finished second to Lasse Viren in the 5000m final at Montreal 36 years ago. It was a fabulous final lap, in which Quax and fellow New Zealander Rod Dixon both challenged the flying Finn, who hung on by .40s.

Time can change an outlook, as Kendall and Quax have discovered.

"As the years go on, you think 'hang on, let's put this in perspective'. Here I am, in a pretty privileged group of people getting a medal in the Olympics. Time heals that wound, if you like," said Quax.

As for that discrepancy across the three medals, Kendall and Quax both put it down to a simple quirk of the numbers. Quax recalled the late John Davies was close to silver - recording the identical time to second place-getter Josef Odlozil but finishing third behind the legendary Peter Snell in the Tokyo 1500m final of 1964. Until Willis' promotion, Quax was New Zealand's only track and field silver medallist out of 19 overall - now a 9-2-9 split.

Kendall remembers the last 10 years of her illustrious career when "the number of times I came second at world championships was just crazy. The difference between silver and cracking the big one was something I couldn't quite get again. Sometimes there's just that little barrier that just sits there."

Maybe the colour of the medal is irrelevant, at least to a point. As Quax, with a touch of understatement, put it: "Just to win a medal at the Olympics is quite a difficult achievement."

- NZ Herald

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