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Time to end gay sports medal inflation

Awarding a medal for just showing up defeats the purpose of true competition.

By Jim Buzinski
Outsports.com

Until a week ago, I had never thrown a javelin. I can throw a football 50 yards with a spiral so I figured that flinging a javelin was no big deal.

I stood on the infield of Osterbro Stadium in Copenhagen with my "coach," Lars Rains, an Outgames decathlete and awesome guy, who was giving me some pointers. I wasn't much of a student - two of my throws had the aerodynamic quality of a one-winged duck, while the third did land point down in the ground, albeit only about 10 feet away.

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"Congratulations," Lars said. "You would have won the silver medal in your age group."

I laughed, but his comment brought to the surface one of my pet peeves about international gay sporting events like the Outgames and Gay Games - medal inflation, or awarding a gold, silver or a bronze medal just for showing up. I think it devalues sport and real accomplishment.

Medal inflation is prevalent in sports like track and field and swimming, where athletes of all age groups compete and where there are numerous events for each discipline. The most competitive age groups at these events are those that fall between ages 25 and 45. There are fewer 50+ jocks in any competition and fewer under 25 (due to the cost of getting to an event).

Subsequently, some athletes "win" a medal just by showing up and finishing their event. I've seen athletes at past Gay Games clanking with a half-dozen medal dangling from their neck, only to discover that they were the only one in their age group competing. It seems deceptive. Had I entered the javelin and "won" a silver, I would have stuck it in my pocket and been embarrassed to display it.

Before anyone slams for me disrespecting any competitor, that is not my point. I admire anyone who competes in any sport at any age and I plan on staying active as long as my body allows. But competing means having competition, not getting a pass to a medal.

Here is what my criteria would be for awarding medals in an age group. (In addition to age group medals, there should always be an "open" division awarding gold, silver and bronze to the top three finishers regardless of age.)

  • If there is only 1 competitor: No gold medal awarded. Give the athlete a "medal of accomplishment" to recognize that he competed and finished.
  • Two competitors: Award a gold medal only. Give a medal of accomplishment to second place.
  • Three competitors: Award a gold and silver. Give a medal of accomplishment to third place.
  • Four or more competitors: Award gold, silver and bronze.

The nature of sports and competition is the chance of losing. If no one wins or loses, you have not had a competition but an exhibition. Awarding a medal to those merely finishing cheapens those who won their medals in a true competition.

Finally, I think this medal inflation sends a bad signal about gay and lesbian athletes, that we somehow operate on a different competitive level and need medals to validate us. Let's earn what we've won.

There is another side to this and I will give the last word to Roger Brigham, a longtime wrestler, who posted this comment when I briefly broached this subject a week ago. I obviously disagree but respect what he has to say:

I think there is a value behind the 'medal inflation' comment, but I think it is being looked at backwards.

If there is not a deep pool of peer competition, the prestige is devalued, but what has really been shortchanged is the competition experience for the competitor. The training and sacrifice it took to get there and to try is what is honored and that is the same regardless. But the athlete who must swim or run without a peer to measure against lacks that 'validation' that is a valuable, tangible part of the competitive experience.

The implication behind Jim's comments, that perhaps these athletes should not be honored as much or recognized in the same manner. I disagree with. What I feel bad for is the athlete who while having the joy of exertion in public was not given the 'test' comparison experience.

As for the suggestion for doing away with the age-division gold medals, you have got to be nuts.

I would love to hear what others think, so feel free to post in the comments below.