When Third Place is Something to Celebrate: The 1992 Other Dream Team

Not everyone can win gold, and sometimes bronze makes you happy enough. I’ll get back to that.

The first hurdle I had to surmount when I started writing seriously, or at least when I started thinking seriously about writing was that there wasn’t just one winner. It took me a long time to emotionally realize that more than one book was published each year and beyond that, more than one book was published in each category. Agents took more than one manuscript, and editors usually did, too. So even though I would have to produce a good book, I didn’t have to produce the very best of the year or the best ever written.

In the Olympics, though, only one athlete or team wins gold in each sport. I’ve heard that placing second is the least satisfying because the athletes often are down on themselves for not winning gold. The bronze winners are said to be glad they medaled, but it is likely that some of them feel they weren’t good enough because they didn’t place first. They weren’t the best, so they were a disappointment to their country, themselves, or  another nameless entity.

In the documentary The Other Dream Team,

the Lithuanian men’s basketball team recounts the story of their success in winning. Four of the five gold medal winners in the 1988 Seoul Olympics for the Russian team were Lithuanians. In the intervening years Lithuania won its freedom from the USSR. During that time frame, many Lithuanian players had been drafted to play for teams in the US and elsewhere. After freedom, the international players decided to form a team of Lithuanians to compete in the next Olympics. Although their country rallied behind them, they had no money to support this effort. An unlikely benefactor turned out to be The Grateful Dead. The band outfitted the basketball players in tye-dyed teeshirts in the colors of the Lithuanian flag and helped support the team financially. During the 1992 games, Lithuania, like the US dream team with Michael Jordon, Charles Barkley, and other household names, beat their opponents in embarrassing fashion. The two teams met in the semifinals. USA prevailed. This set up a consolation match for bronze between Lithuania and the former Soviet Republic.

Not only did the team  want to win this game for self respect–and remember in the last Olympics four of the five starters on that Russian team were Lithuanians–but the whole country rooted for them. When they prevailed and climbed the podium wearing their Grateful Dead teeshirts, the players admitted that winning the bronze meant more to them than the earlier gold.

As in basketball, in writing the circumstances surrounding a “win” can determine how one feels about a success.

I wrote the above as a draft post more than a month ago. At this point I don’t remember exactly what my point was going to be, but it seems important to remember that not everyone can be on the bestseller list or win the Man Booker prize. Sometimes the act of publication and the congratulations of a small number of friends and readers is enough. Sometimes it is worthwhile to remember that certain teams start with an advantage–more money, a larger cohort to choose from to form the team, etc. Sometimes bronze is more meaningful than gold.

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