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Now there’s even less reason to feel bad for athletes who missed out on the top three spots at the Sochi Games: They still get a nice little paper thanking them for trying.

Today's New York Times takes a look at the Olympic Diploma, a little-known prize, handed out to athletes who place in fourth through eighth place in every event, and also given to the top three medal winners alongside their hardware. While the diplomas don’t exactly conjure up the glamor and glory of a gold, silver, or bronze medal, the diplomas are a token of participation and sportsmanship for athletes who are still some of the best in the world.

Olympic diplomas have been awarded to athletes in some form since 1896, when only the top finisher got one. The 1904 St. Louis Games were the first to offer gold, silver and bronze medals, and gradually more athletes started receiving the diplomas as well. In 1923, the top three athletes received diplomas with their medals, expanding to the top six in 1948, and the current top eight in 1984.

Bill Mallon, an Olympic historian, told The New York Times that, “The I.O.C. sends diplomas to a lot of people. The Olympics has always loved protocol,” adding that a lot of athletes don’t know about the diplomas, or that they’re even eligible to receive on — until they actually get one, that is.  

As the Times found, many athletes don’t even see their diplomas. American bobsledder Steven Holcomb has fond memories of the ceremony for the gold medal he won for the four-man competition in the 2010 Vancouver Games, giving the United States the top spot in the event for the first time in 62 years. But it's all a bit fuzzy when it comes to the prize for his sixth-place standing in the two-man bobsled event in 2010, and his sixth-place standing in the four-man event in the 2006 Torino Games.

“I honestly don’t even remember getting something like that,” he said. “Maybe they mailed it to me, and my mother has it? Or maybe they had the wrong address?”

Scott Shipley, an American slalom kayaker, told Slate that he’d add the diploma he never received for his fifth place standing in the 2000 Sydney Games “to the list of diplomas he never got.”

The color of diplomas awarded to the top three contestants correspond with their gold, silver and bronze medals, while fourth through eighth place diplomas are simpler. Some countries like Canada — currently sixth in the Sochi Winter Olympic medal standings with 14 medals, four of them gold — have held small diploma ceremonies in the past, but often athletes will find their diplomas slotted into envelopes with other official Olympic papers.

Olympic collectors, enthusiasts or just the curious can find Olympic diplomas on eBay, which provides a fascinating glimpse into the monetary value of a prize for those outside of the coveted top three positions, unlikely to have any lucrative sponsorship deals or the guarantee of fame attached to it. An original diploma from the 1900 Paris Summer Olympic Games is priced at $500, while a more recent diploma from the 2008 Beijing Olympics is listed for $50.

Athletes aren’t the only group of exceptional people to receive a diploma.  President Theodore Roosevelt was among a group that received an Olympic diploma in 1905, selected “less for their athletic qualities than for the use they put them to.” How flattering.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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