Why Olympic silver medalists aren’t ‘first losers’: Aussie track star stands up for No. 2

LONDON — "The First Loser."

That's how Australian long jumper Mitchell Watt, 24, had heard the silver medal described over the Olympiads. Not second in the world. Not the runner-up. Rather, the athlete that simply didn't have the will or ability to win gold.

[ Photos: Sliver medalists face disappointment on the podium ]

He saw it as a symptom of the media's and culture's obsession with winners and losers. Such as the obsession with gold medals on the London Olympics leaderboard. Such as the harsh criticism of teammates like the Aussie swimmers, whose seemingly underwhelming performance in London still resulted in 10 medals — six of them silver.

In the 2012 men's long jump final, Watt won the silver medal with a top distance of 8.13m. It was the fourth Aussie silver in the event's Olympic history, having never struck gold. It was another loss for Australia to a Team Great Britain athlete in 2012, as Greg Rutherford won with a leap of 8.31m.

The first question Watt received after the event? It was about how disappointing it was that he fell short of the gold, and how disappointing it was that Team Australia wasn't performing better on their rival's home turf.

Watt's response: "It's questions like that that make it seem like we're not doing well. An Olympic gold medal is bloody hard to get."

He continued: "All the sports are becoming extremely competitive and more globalized. There are 210 countries here and if people can't realize that a silver medal is a great achievement then there's something wrong with them."

It was a Jerry Maguire moment for the "first losers" -- an impassioned rebuke of the "gold or bust" culture that's tarnished the silver and bronze as inferior accomplishments. It was a torpedo aimed at the media and their obsession with chronicling failure at the expense of achievement.

"You can ask any silver medalist. A part of them wishes they won gold. Of course when I stood on the podium, I wish I had the gold medal. But I'm standing there, receiving an Olympic silver medal, and they don't hand out many of them," he said.

"I didn't feel like I lost. The media did."

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In the process, Mitchell Watt became a hero to the second best.

"My phone's been going ballistic. A thousands messages. But it's all been positive. Not one of them's been negative," he said, adding that a number of athletes have been among the well-wishers. "One of the themes is that it's nice to see someone happy with a silver medal."

For weeks, Watt had contemplated the perception of discontent for athletes who win silver or bronze. He found it absurd that those accomplishments were diminished by the media when the athletes, by and large, were thrilled just to medal.

"The medal tally thing is based purely on gold medals, and everything else is a disaster," said Watt, who was touting the Powerade Sports Academy in London on Monday. (It's an academy for amateur athletes from 13 countries that seeks to improve their performance through hydration tests and assorted sports science training.)

"It's just frustrating, because the vibe on the team is so good. All my teammates were so happy. I was happy."

He also found it absurd that his journey to an Olympic medal — four years ago he wasn't running track or even watching the Beijing Games on television — could be framed as unfulfilled.

"When I woke up the morning of my final, I thought I'd be happy with top two. And I was," he said. "Undeniably, the other guy won. I said that. But you wake up and it leaves a sour taste in your mouth when you go to the news website and you read five negative headlines."

Those headlines have changed since Watt spoke out.

"Since I said it, they've turned around a bit," he said. "Ever since I said it, the newspapers have been all on my side. They're like, 'He's attacking the media,' and they're pretending it's not them."

Silver-medal winners finally have their champion in Mitchell Watt, an athlete willing to swallow his pride and admit that being second best in the world is an honor few can claim to have achieved.

So what about the "Second Losers"?

"Oh, bronze sucks," he said, with a laugh.

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