This Is The Weird History Behind The Winners Circle At The Olympics

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If, like sports fans worldwide, you've been watching the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, you may have noticed something intriguing in some of the winter sports. In staggered events, where competitors take individual turns on a course — like the luge, skeleton, and some skiing and snowboarding events — the finishing line becomes the focus of a bit of psychological drama. There's a "winners circle" at the very end of those courses, where either the single competitor in gold-medal position or the three people ranked in gold, silver and bronze stand in front of the cameras and watch as other people compete. If somebody takes their spot, they leave. It's not a system found in many sports, and is virtually unknown at the Summer Olympics. And it's hella dramatic.

If this strikes you as an interesting — and, perhaps, odd — bit of sports psychology, you're right. These areas for the top three originated in horse-racing; the winner's circle (and note the apostrophe placement) at a horse-racing track is an area away from the actual racing where the winning jockeys and their horses stand to receive their bouquets and trophies. Which makes perfect organizational sense, because you can't have a collection of tired, huge horses crowding around at the finish line. But why has it spread to winter sports, and what's the thinking behind it?

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The International Olympic Committee tells Bustle that it's not actually an official part of Olympic policy. Instead, the press office explains, it's the business of "the relevant International Federations," the governing bodies behind each individual sport at the PyeongChang Olympics. "They are responsible for their rules and regulation," the IOC says.

And according to Wolfgang Harder, head of media for the International Luge Federation, it's been a part of their procedure for decades. "We've done this for more than 15 years," he tells Bustle, "at every world cup race." Luge's winners circle, or box, is restricted to the person or team that is currently in gold medal position — and the TV cameras of the world's media are trained on them as they watch the runs of their competitors, assessing whether they'll retain the top spot.

The reasoning behind it, Harder explains, is largely to do with visuals — and sponsorship. "It is a benefit to the spectators and the media," Harder tells Bustle. "Normally the wall behind the winner's box is covered with the signs of our sponsor. And at the end we have a flowers ceremony in front of this wall for TV coverage and photographers." In a sport where sponsorship is hugely important for athletes' equipment quality and success, that counts.

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It's also a good media strategy. For viewers, the dramatic focus on the potential medal trio increases interest — and let's face it, it's good television to watch people who've potentially clinched a place on the podium squirm, weep or rejoice through the runs of other competitors. And it makes life easier for the media, who don't have to search through crowds with multiple cameras to locate medal winners.

Jenny Wiedeke of the International Skiing Federation tells Bustle that in skiing and snowboarding events, "those still in medal contention are kept in the finish area to keep them close by for the in-venue ceremony to honor the top three finishers." That, she says, is "for logistical purposes": while top finishers in those events don't get their medals immediately after they finish, they still get a celebration (and, in PyeongChang, an adorable stuffed tiger). And those who leave the winners circle are still in demand elsewhere. "When an athlete has fallen out of the Top 3," Wiedecke explains, "they can leave to go to the mixed zone for media requests." All those TV interviews with just-missed-out-on-medal athletes are held then, to tug at your heartstrings.

The winners circle is an intriguing invention, and it definitely adds a bit of dramatic flair to the Winter Olympics. Not, to be fair, that it really needs any more drama.