Before August 13, 2008, before the final whistle, the handshake, and the iconic lift of the winner's arm, before Jyllands-Posten wrote: "Denmark is hit by another Olympic disappointment" and before the reflections, came the imbalance first.

Although 2008 is many years ago, the year still stands out clearly for the Danish wrestler Mark O. Madsen. 2008 was the year when he realized that dancing on the edge made him too easy to topple. That year he fell, but that fall became the start of recreating a more stable foundation that can withstand the challenges of the sport.

Photo: Lars Schmidt /

The Olympic Disappointment

Clear gold favorite. Hyped by the media as a big Olympic hope. 2008 was supposed to be the year. Therefore, it wasn't just the media, the Danes, and the wrestling federation who were shocked when Mark O. Madsen lost his first match at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, where he faced the Russian, Varteres Samurgasjev, and thus was out of the tournament.

"It was a defeat and a painful experience," Mark recalls.

The plane went from the Chinese capital back to Denmark. For Mark, the following days were characterized by a massive chaos of reflection. He was considering his future career. Should he really continue with this? Would four more years of his life be wasted if the next medal wasn't made of the finest precious metal?

"In 2005-6-7, I trained with one goal; to win Olympic gold. That was the driving force. It wasn't about having a daily life that was particularly comfortable, balanced, or sustainable. It was the medal that justified pushing myself through," Mark O. Madsen explains.

The advantage of not riding on a victory wave

Besides the disappointment, the defeat meant no hype. It meant that the media storm wouldn't take him, put him in the driver's seat and blow him out on the road from one event to another. The silence would calm his torrent of thoughts and make him pack his bag and go home to Nykøbing Falster. For a long time, Mark's entire identity had been elite sports. If he won, he was a success. If he lost, he was a failure. At this point, he was the sport, and the sport was him.

"The way I practiced elite sports, where the color of the medal decided whether I was good or bad, that's where it began to become quite dangerous for me as a human being."

Mark was part of the German club 1. Luckenwalder SC on a daily basis and not long after the Olympic defeat he was supposed to wrestle for the German Championship. Leading up to this weekend, thoughts flew back and forth, and in the end, Mark O. Madsen picked up the phone. His focus had shifted, and he needed both a physical and mental break. It shouldn't be when he was done with his career. It should be now.

"I was left with the feeling of delivering a failure by getting knocked out of the Olympic finals, but it's the healthiest defeat I've ever had. Because it forced me to delve into why I actually practice sports. Is it about medals, or is it about working to become the best version of myself?"

He cancelled for the first time ever. That weekend his childhood friend and good buddy were getting married, and now Mark had the opportunity to attend this event. A major decision, which turned out to be crucial for the rest of his life.

Photo: Lars Schmidt /
Lars Schmidt /

The Wedding Miracle

Church bells were ringing, and high on attending a social event, Mark was ready in his finest outfit. The white tablecloth, the delicious food, and the most beautiful table lady. Maybe not worry-free, but for one evening, Mark was in the moment and not in the Olympic finals. The beautiful table lady was the childhood friend's cousin. The conversation flowed, and the music played.

"We gamble everything in many aspects of life. Sometimes you have to go up and ask for a dance, and other times wrestle an important match. There's always a risk of getting a 'no,' a defeat, or a failure, but I feel that the fear of suffering a defeat should never be greater than the desire and courage to try to create a success," Mark says.

That evening, he took a chance on the dance. A deep breath, a proposal, and several dance steps later, it became the best decision of Mark's life. Because now Mark is not just a wrestler, he is first and foremost someone's husband and father.

Lars Schmidt /
Much More Than a Wrestler

After the 2008 Olympic Games, Mark was able to build a broad foundation that made him see himself as more than just an athlete.

"I no longer describe myself as a wrestler, I am a family person. Now I am 'home safe' no matter what. I have a family and some people who love me for who I am. It does not depend on whether I come home and have been a success at the Olympic Games. I can come home and have lost, and I'm sitting drinking the same cup of coffee with the same people, and they will love me just as much. It's important to carry that in my baggage."

At the same time, he had time to reflect on why he practiced his sport.

"When I stood there scraping the bottom, in what I felt was a defeat, I realized that I was doing it for something else, that I loved the sport and the people who were part of it."

In 2008, Mark did not get an Olympic medal. In 2012, he fought for the bronze, but had to settle for fourth place. On the other hand, Mark O. Madsen managed to come second at the 2016 Olympics, and decided that he didn't lose gold, but won silver. Finding balance in everyday life, where everything is not solely about sports, is Mark's recipe. He has the freedom to perform without worrying about the result, because there are many other things in his existence that create value. This means that the results and the medals are not paramount.

Photo: Diego azubel
Lars Schmidt /


All things being equal, this has made Mark the most winning wrestler in Denmark, and a defeat should not be what knocks him out.


At this year's Olympic Games in Japan's capital, Tokyo, over 11,000 athletes participated in 50 different disciplines. All with a wish and a goal to end up at the top of the victory podium with a gold medal around their necks. They competed in a total of 339 competitions across 33 sports. But after the 16 August, where the historic games unfolded, only 340 of them could go home with gold medals. This means, when the games were over, over 10,000 athletes were left as "losers". Some of them instead went home with a silver or bronze medal in their bag. But are athletes really winners if they go home with a medal other than gold?

You win gold but lose silver

That's the question Dutch lecturer Adriaan Kalwij set out to find out. He was particularly interested in the impact of competition results on health, and therefore chose to examine the lifespan of Olympic athletes. He published his study in 2018.

The result is devastating news for athletes with a silver medal around their neck. His study showed that silver medal recipients lived significantly shorter than both gold and bronze winners. In fact, on average 3.4 and 2.9 years respectively.

According to the lecturer's study, the reason is that the included athletes perceived the competition result negatively, because they felt they did not win silver, but lost gold. This feeling of disappointment triggers some stress hormones that affect the psyche, which ultimately cost the athletes years of life.

Defeat Affects Identity

As an athlete, competition is at the top of the job description and is an essential part of everyday tasks, preparations and mindset. Elite sports are inextricably linked to performance and being measured and weighed on results. But when athletes identify with the sport - and only the sport - it can have some negative consequences.

Research reveals that people who highly identify with the athlete role deprioritize social relations and find it difficult to participate in social events. An intense pursuit of success usually involves sacrifices of other elements in life. In this context, other people who can support one when defeats come, like a lost final in the Olympics, are also ruled out.

Individual Responsibility or Cultural Problem?

The path to the top of the medal podium is tough for today's top athletes, and professionalism and talent development start already in the youth years. As the focus on talent and performance grows larger and larger, the eye of the needle becomes smaller and smaller. According to Kenneth Cortsen, Ph.D. Assistant Professor and researcher in sports management at University College of Northern Denmark (UCN), a focus on talent and performance can help create a very one-sided world with an environment and a circle of acquaintances that closes in on itself.

It's important that athletes have some other focal points than just the sports part. If your entire identity is borne by the sport and being an elite-level performer, you are, all other things being equal, more vulnerable if the results don't go your way.

Kenneth Cortsen

Kenneth Cortsen is an expert in the intersection between economics, management, and branding in the sports industry, and also has practical experience as an elite football coach. In 2008-2009, he helped develop the first professional bachelor's degree in sports management in Denmark. Some of the ideas behind the education are to strengthen the foundation for elite athletes. The education includes the opportunity for a flexible online course so that elite athletes can combine education with their sports career.

"Mental diversion can be very important - whether it's education or other things off the pitch, it's not necessarily what it depends on. What I've seen in my time as a coach in elite sports is that athletes, of course, have to focus on what they have to perform on the pitch, but it's also important that they're in balance off the pitch - to be able to perform."

The arguments for athletes at the highest level focusing only on sport are many. Several sports encourage an "ALL-IN" culture, where the athlete either has to do it 100 percent or not at all. Because if the mindset is aimed at one thing, the surroundings do not disturb, and in this way, there is a greater opportunity to perform and excel in a specific area.

Danish research3 challenges this claim. A study conducted by Aarhus University in collaboration with the Danish Sports Confederation (DIF) and Team Denmark has shown that the Olympic performances of the athletes they call student-athletes (athletes who, in parallel with their sport, study) have for decades performed better than athletes who have not had a study next to the sport.

According to Kenneth Cortsen, however, it is not solely the athlete who has a responsibility in this context. It is also the culture that needs to change.

"As a coach, I have experienced athletes who ended up on a slippery slope. It is therefore important to have a balance between life as an athlete and the rest of the world so that one is not lost in the process. It's something that starts at the top and is about the leaders and coaches being hired.

Photo: Diego azubel
Photo: Diego azubel


1: Kalwij, A. (2008).The Effects of Competition Outcomes on Health: Evidence from the Lifespans of U.S. Olympic Medalists, Economics and human biology, 31, 276-286

2: Martin, J. J., Eklund, R. C. and Mushett, C. A. (1997). Factor structure of the Athletic Identity Measurement Scale with athletes with disabilities. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 14: 74–8

3: AU., DIF. & Team Danmark (2016). Sportslige toppræstationer hos danske student-athletes i 2016. Oplysninger hentet fra: