In Defense Of Bronze: The True Mettle Of The Metal Of The 3rd-Place Medal In the Olympics, and in many other areas of life, from comic-book eras to health care plans, "bronze" has come to signify the least of three things. It shouldn't.

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

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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.

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