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Past shortcomings motivating factor for many 2008 Olympians

by Ed Odeven

According to conventional wisdom, people forget the runnersup, but they remember the champions.

That’s not always true.

After all, my dad would remind me, the Brooklyn Dodgers always seemed to lose to the New York Yankees in the World Series before beating their cross-town rivals for their first title in 1955. And who can forget the pathetic plight of the Buffalo Bills in the early 1990s, when they were perennial losers in the Super Bowl?

Every four years, there’s a new generation of Olympic champions, a fraternity of gold medalists with an endless collection of stories to tell their families, friends and journalists in future decades.

Yet there’s a greater collection of Olympians with this distinction: Their pursuit of greatness came up short, often by the slimmest of margins. They are the S&B Club, the silver and bronze medalists, some of whom are happy about their accomplishments and many more with similar thoughts: the what-ifs, or hypothetical questions, that never vanish completely.

Case in point: In the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, American Billy Mills edged Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia in the 10,000-meter men’s race, outdueling him and Australia’s Ron Clarke in the final stretch. Mills completed the race in 28 minutes, 24.4 seconds; Gammoudi was clocked in 28:24.48.

Other No. 2s are not close at all. They simply occupy the obligatory spot behind the victor.

Like presidential elections in the United States, there’s a strategy for success in place every four years for Olympic athletes, clinging to the words of their coaches: stay healthy, train, make incremental improvements and go for the gold.

And for those who are coming off bronze- or silver-medal efforts, especially those who didn’t nab a gold medal in another event and are planning to return to the Olympics as a competitor, the big “m” word, MOTIVATION, is their driving force for four more years.

Japan’s Olympic squad has numerous athletes who fit the above description.

Swimmer Reiko Nakamura recorded a third-place finish in the women’s 200-meter backstroke in Athens. Teammate Yuko Nakanishi earned the bronze in the 200 butterfly.

Team Japan took home the bronze in the baseball competition, a fact Shinya Miyamoto, the 2008 squad’s captain, will be sure to remind his teammates during their pregame practices.

Overall, Japan received 12 bronze medals in Athens, including four in swimming, three in wrestling and two in gymnastics and one in softball.

Swimmer Tomomi Morita (men’s 100 back, 4×100 medley relay) was the lone Japanese athlete to leave Greece with a pair of bronze medals. He expected better.

“My time was not great and I can swim faster than this, the then-19-year-old Morita told Kyodo News after completing the 100 back in 54.36 seconds.

That, of course, gave him a singular focus while looking ahead to 2008.

Takashi Yamamoto, now 30, stood on the podium with a silver medal around his neck after the men’s 100 butterfly, and after the aforementioned medley relay, he was one of four men on the planet with a bronze in that event (Kosuke Kitajima and Yoshihiro Okumura rounded out the quartet).

In the next four years, Yamamoto trained rigorously for a chance to return to the podium and take a step up to the center spot, the one reserved for gold-medal winners. He failed to make the team, however, finishing third in the 100 fly at the Japan Olympic Swim Trials in April.

Yamamoto’s athletic biography is similar to many of his contemporaries’: he achieved success but fell short of true greatness. Of course, he may write a new chapter to his athletic story in 2012, making the Olympic team at the ripe old age of 34. This, in fact, would probably make his quest for a gold medal even more intense.

In 2004, Japan’s silver haul consisted of nine medals, including partners Miya Tachibana and Miho Takeda accomplishing the feat in synchronized swimming. They also helped Japan grab the team silver. (And hey, that’ll look good on their respective resumes, too.)

Silver medalists, you can argue, own a slightly different mind-set than their bronze medal counterparts. Their level of excitement may tip the scale more dramatically than the third-place finishers.

But that’s not always the case. Silver medalists, especially the favorites or defending champions, may be more disappointed than bronze medalists about the outcome. The words “underachieved” and “it wasn’t my best effort” can summarize former champions’ reactions in these situations.

Yet you can look to the 2007 World Wrestling Championships in Azerbaijan for a classic reminder of the psychological boost an athlete gets from a revenge win.

Chiharu Icho experienced this emotional jolt by beating Ukraine’s Irini Merleni — who had defeated her to claim gold in Athens — in the final of the women’s 48-kg division last September.

“I’m pleased I was able to get revenge for the loss three years ago,” Icho told Kyodo News after her win at the 2007 World Wrestling Championships.

“I wasn’t out of breath after the first period, so I knew I could keep going.”

Keep going. It’s the underlying message of the Olympic dream, a journey that never stops, especially for those who have come oh so close to the summit — the silver and bronze medalists.