Not Everyone Gets a Medal

Not Everyone Gets a Medal in the Olympics (Or in Life)

I’ve said it before, but I absolutely love the Olympics.  Sure some of the events might make you shake your head in bewilderment as you wonder who exactly voted to approve their inclusion (yeah, I’m talking about you trampoline and race walking).  But if traditional Olympic sports like steeplechase and synchronized swimming seem utterly preposterous, many of the new Olympics “sports”, like breakdancing and BMX riding, will make you think that the IOC must be comprised of a bunch of desperate, old men trying way too hard to prove just how “hip” they really are, like your Dad wearing an Eminem concert tour t-shirt when he heads out to dinner at Applebee’s.  Regardless of the sport, however, each of these athletes train for years just to have the opportunity to prove that they are the best in the world at what they do, even if the rest of us only really give a damn every four years.  Their dedication to their sport and conditioning is nothing short of remarkable, requiring sacrifice and perseverance, even when the road becomes arduous and the path to victory anything but certain.  There are many lonely, trying moments in those four years between Olympics, the kind of moments that will test the human spirit in a way few of us will ever know.  And yet, at the end of that fortnight of competition, only three can stand upon the podium.  Only three get to go home with a medal to validate the countless hours of hard work and preparation.  The rest go home with nothing but memories and a fresh case of herpes.

But that’s not how it is with elementary school Field Days all across our nation, now is it?  No, we have all become far too familiar with the “everyone gets a medal” mindset plaguing our nation’s schools, haven’t we?  Out of a persistent, nagging fear that celebrating the accomplishments of some might infringe on the fragile egos of our other delicate little flowers, we have eschewed recognizing the winners of athletic events and devolved into a culture mired in mediocrity.  In order to protect our children from the sometimes unkind nature of competition, we have inoculated them from the dangers of failure and disappointment, bubble wrapping them in the suffocating security of homogeneous results.

Still, this cultural shift towards mediocrity couched in the name of fairness and equality is not relegated merely to dodgeball and soccer tournaments.  Indeed this has become the prevailing sentiment in academics as well, as students are coddled in their self-image and rewarded with rampant grade inflation.  No longer can teachers give a C to a kid doing C work,  No, that might do irreparable harm to their inflated sense of self.  Instead, everyone gets a B or better, rendering the outstanding achievements of some as relatively negligible.  Consider these facts: A 50-plus-year nationwide study of the history of college grading finds that, in the early 1960s, an A grade was awarded in colleges nationwide 15 percent of the time. But today, an A is the most common grade awarded in college, and the percentage of A grades has tripled, to 45 percent nationwide. Seventy-five percent of all grades awarded now are either A’s and B’s.  Similarly, high school grades in the United States have increased by as much as 12.5% between 1991 and 2003.  In other words, if good grades were Olympic medals, everybody would get one.

But that’s not how real life works, now is it?  Like in the Olympics, the number of rewards and recognitions for high achievement are finite in number, and thus there is competition for those that want to earn them.  The IOC isn’t about to start adding more medals like Copper and Tin so that more athletes can stand atop the podium.  Likewise, only one candidate gets the job being offered.  Only one employee earns the promotion.  And hey, if you work for Amazon or Walmart, only one individual gets to take a bathroom break each hour, so you better stand out from the crowd.  Our capitalist economy defines the nature of our society in that it is rooted in the elements of competition, and in that respect, there are very real winners and losers, and not everyone gets a flippin’ medal.

And it is just that incongruous disconnect between the environment in which we are raising our kids and the ones they will experience when they matriculate from high school and beyond that should leave us deeply concerned about their future mental health and well-being, as well the potential prosperity of our nation as a whole.  At some point, we will have to remove the bubble wrap of ego protection as they are introduced to the stark realities of competition and earned achievement.  When that happens, they will come to realize what Olympic athletes already know- that achievement isn’t something given to you, but rather something earned through perseverance and hard work, that accomplishment is not synonymous with reward.  Dramatically unprepared for a world where triumph is measured in performance, they will struggle to face the notion of merit-based, rather than universal, validation.

And that is exactly the lesson are kids are missing out on by our granting them unmerited entitlement.  In the end, everything’s value is derived not from the end results themselves, but from the journey travelled in achieving them.  Olympic medals aren’t valuable because they are made of gold and silver and bronze.  They are priceless because of the sweat, enthusiasm, and devotion that went into earning them.  Those medals they give out to every participant, the ones we give to kids for doing absolutely nothing- they aren’t worth shit.


Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works.  Read his blog TRUTH: In 1000 Words or Less every THURSDAY at