A few days ago I found two interesting articles about lifespans in athletes, and how the victory can affect lifespan. One of them compared longevity in gold and silver Olympic medallists in track and field disciplines, while the other focused on United States Olympic medallists in all disciplines.
When comparing gold and silver medallist, the first study focused on Olympic medallists from 1896 to 1948, when athletes were amateur, and doping use was scarce. It was found that on average winners died more than one year earlier than their silver contenders. It contradicts previous studies where achievements improved life expectancy, as for example after winning a Nobel Prize (1-2 extra years), or Oscar Award winners against nominees (4 years longer lives). Obviously there are differences, as these achievement are more subjective, and attained much later in life, especially when talking about the Nobel prizes.
It is suggested that maybe the gold medallists were less motivated later in life, affecting their career choices, as their income was significantly lower than the one from silver, or even bronze medallists. Another explanation could be that their victories would make them famous, and get them to a riskier lifestyle. Maybe those early achievements would increase the stress levels, as they would try to succeed in every future activity. Conclusions are limited, as there is no information about athletes’ lifestyles after retirement, or any influence of tobacco and alcohol. It is not clear if winning is a stimulus or a deterrent.
The second article focuses on life expectancies of a broader range of athletes, not only track and field, but using only athletes from the United States between 1904 and 1948. It includes gold, silver and bronze medallists, although the 1896 and 1900 Olympics were excluded because no silver or bronze medals were awarded.
This study assumes that a better prize allows a better socioeconomic status later in life. It also assumes similar health status in all medallists at the time of competition. Regarding happiness levels, winner is happy with his victory, while bronze medallist finds his third place as an achievement when comparing with the fourth classified, that doesn´t get any reward. On the contrary, silver medallist keeps thinking about how close was the victory, valuing the silver medal as a gold medal lost.
From 600 gold medallists, and nearly 400 silver and other 400 bronze medallists it was found that silver medallists lived on average 3 years less than medallists from the other two groups. Between gold and bronze medallists there we no differences in life expectancy. Worth noting that life expectancies of all medallists was higher than in the general population:
- Population 67.7
- Bronze 74.8
- Silver 70.8
- Gold 73.2
An explanation suggested is that winning silver is seeing with dissatisfaction, leading to an increase of stress hormones. This physiological alteration would extend for long time periods, compromising their health and affect their life expectancy.
As the article point out, individual mental health support should be facilitated when needed.
So remember: if you are not going to win a race, you may well try to finish happy, or alternatively go for the third place.
The effects of competition outcomes on health: Evidence from the lifespans of U.S. Olympic medalists.
Econ Hum Biol. 2018.
Dying to win? Olympic Gold medals and longevity.
J Health Econ. 2018.