When Brazilian swimmer Bruno Fratus learned he won bronze in the 50-meter men’s freestyle, he was struck with pure joy.
Still in the pool, he threw both fists up in the air as a grin stretched across his face. Once on the victory stand he bit his medal, later deep-kissing his coach-turned-wife. In a picture of all three medalists, he appeared happier than both the gold and silver medalists combined.
But little did Fratus know that in his jubilation, he was recreating a meme making fun of people who celebrate what’s considered a mediocre achievement. His reactions were near-identical to the comic, which also features an ecstatic third place swimmer. The side-by-side comparison has gone viral on social media.
It may seem little more than a coincidence, but behind the meme is a copious amount of social science. Studies have actually shown that people who come in third place may be happier than those who win silver.
The first notable paper on this phenomenon, When Less Is More: Counterfactual Thinking and Satisfaction Among Olympic Medalists, dates back to 1995.
To analyze Olympic medalists’ satisfaction, researchers gathered participants to rate the facial expressions of winners at the 1992 Barcelona Games. They scored on a 10-point scale, from agony to ecstasy. Overwhelmingly, silver medalists were given the lowest scores, thus deemed less happy despite having received an objectively better medal than bronze.
Researchers concluded that this was because the imagined alternative for a silver medalist was winning gold, which is better. But for the bronze medalist, it could be finishing without a medal at all. According to the 1995 study, our level of satisfaction is relative—as people, we can be greatly affected by how our objective outcomes compare to our imagined results, or what “might have been.”
Fratus’ meme-worthy joy was honest and real, he later told the Portuguese channel SPORTV. At 32, he’s now the oldest swimmer to have won their first medal. Fratus competed in both London 2012 and Rio 2016, but never set foot on the podium.
In addition to Fratus, American star gymnast Simone Biles was also cheerful about winning bronze in the women’s balance beam event. She told NBC that it meant more to her than her gold medals because of what it represented: focusing on her mental health and perseverance through the past five years.
The 24-year-old was shocked when she came out third. “I didn’t really care about the outcome. I was just happy that I made the routine and that I got to compete one more time,” she said.
When the British women’s gymnastics team won bronze, they were similarly overjoyed and surprised, having earned the country’s first team medal in 93 years. One of the four gymnasts, Jessica Gadirova, said, “We were over the moon that we’d beat our score from qualifying anyway, but being third, we can’t ask for more,” according to an interview on British Gymnastics’ homepage.
But on the flip side, with overjoyed bronze-winning Olympians come unsatisfied silver medalists.
Chinese athletes Xu Xin and Liu Shiwen tearfully apologized when they won silver in the mixed doubles table tennis match on July 26. This was the first time in 17 years that the country lost a gold medal in table tennis. Japanese athletes, too, have apologized for only picking up silvers during the Tokyo Games.
Similarly, on Wednesday, British boxer Benjamin Whittaker was so upset about winning second place that he refused to wear his silver medal and cried on the podium. During the award ceremony, he posed next to the other medalists, holding up his medal with puffy eyes. He said, “You don’t win silver, you lose gold.”