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.)

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit


This is the part of the summer when NPR TV critic Eric Deggans and pop culture correspondent Linda Holmes pack their bags, head to LA and watch a lot of video teasers of new TV shows. They also bring on the tough questions for network executives, producers and actors, and this has been going on since the end of last month. It's finally the last day of the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour. There's a lot to talk about. Eric, welcome back to the show.


CORNISH: And, Linda, how are you?

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: Oh, I'm fine, Audie, just fine.

CORNISH: You sound a little tired.


CORNISH: I understand you've been to a hundred and twenty-eight panels roughly.

HOLMES: That was - that's me, yes. That's my personal best - 128 panels. So I'll start with the first one, and we'll talk about all of the other - I don't know how long your show is.

CORNISH: But I hear you had a very interesting visit to the HBO panel.

HOLMES: Yes. On the first Saturday of Press Tour, Casey Bloys who is now in charge of entertainment at HBO had his first executive session with us, and I asked him about the fact that in light of "Game Of Thrones" and "True Detective" and the new shows "Westworld" and "The Night Of " - I asked him about the role that sexual violence against women plays at HBO and whether they were a little too reliant on it. He did not have much of an answer to that particularly at first.

DEGGANS: Yeah, and Linda asked him two questions about it. Another female critic asked a question about it. He didn't really answer, and then I asked him about it. And then he finally answered and that just looked terrible where he would answer a question from a male critic, but not from the female critics.

CORNISH: What was his answer in the end?

HOLMES: I would say in the end his answer was he does not think that they're overly reliant on it. He basically said, I hope not.

CORNISH: All right. CBS also had a difficult day with the press. Glenn Geller, the president of CBS Entertainment, was asked why the network's six new fall shows all starred white men. Here's his response.


GLENN GELLER: I'm really glad this question came up first because we're very mindful at CBS about the importance of diversity and inclusion, and I'm glad we're having this conversation first. We need to do better, and we know it.

DEGGANS: He did not sound like he was glad that this was the first question he had to deal with at Press Tour. But you look at CBS's schedule, and it's a flashback to almost 20 years ago in the 1990s when all the big four networks would regularly advance the slate of new shows that were mostly - are almost all cast with white people. And then, you know, they'd fill in a few people of color in the supporting roles. It's obvious when they do something like this, it is a deliberate strategy. And I think that's what critics were reacting to and what I asked him very deliberately about. When you go about casting your shows like this, there's a sense that it will be harder to reflect the diversity of America and to have that as a deliberate strategy is a little troubling.

CORNISH: Linda, is this the same approach at other networks? I mean, how did people talk about diversity elsewhere?

HOLMES: Well, CBS was unfortunate in that they followed FX which had gone the day before, and when FX had their presentations, the president of FX whose name was John Landgraf reacted specifically to a piece that Maureen Ryan wrote in Variety where she had audited, essentially, the directors at different places and how little diversity there was.

And he said that in response to having read that article, he had started a specific effort to increase the diversity of their directors, and he had some numbers indicating that they had made some real strides in that area. And that's what people tend to respond to more positively is, you know, here's what we are actually doing on a concrete level as opposed to we need to do better.

DEGGANS: And he made the difference in a matter of months. So this sense that, oh, it takes us years or it takes all this time to make a difference was kind of put to the lie, and it happened right before CBS came before us.

CORNISH: All right. This was a lot of serious stuff, but we are talking about TV. And I know you guys have seen a lot over the last couple of weeks. What's good? What can we look forward to this fall?

HOLMES: Well, I'm going to go with three that I really liked that come from three really different kind of comedic minds. One is Tig Notaro's show "One Mississippi," which is coming to Amazon. That pilot has actually already been available. And then Donald Glover has a show called "Atlanta" which is going to be on FX, and then Issa Rae has a show coming to HBO called "Insecure." And I really like all of those. They're all really interesting, and they're really specific. And I'm excited about all of them.

DEGGANS: And as much as I've criticized the broadcast networks, I feel like almost every one of them has had at least one pilot that's really promising this fall. So my two favorites are "Pitch" on Fox, which is a story about a woman who's the first woman to play against the men in Major League Baseball and a family drama called "This Is Us" on NBC. It's about three different people who are related in a way you might not expect, and the stories of their parents in the past. These are both really great shows.

CORNISH: All right. That's a nice mix to start. Eric Deggans, our TV critic and NPR's pop culture correspondent, Linda Holmes, thanks so much.

HOLMES: Thanks, Audie.

DEGGANS: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.