When people think Second Place Is For Losers, it basically means that if someone gets second place in a competition (that has more than two contestants), it's little better than coming in last. It doesn't matter if you've won a footrace with everyone on the planet, and bested 6,999,999,998 people. All that matters is you didn't beat the one.
Some athletes really do feel that way, coming so close and yet missing the mark. For example, one scientific study analyzed photographs of the facial expressions of many Olympians as they learned how they had placed. Gold was of course almost always ecstatic; Bronze medalists were happy to have placed at all, but a Silver winner usually showed disappointment or dejection at coming in second best.
In a narrative sense, this can be used to give an Aesop about sportsmanship, or at can be used to squeeze some extra Angst from a character, especially if the second placing character was hoping to use the competition to impress a "Well Done, Son" Guy parent.
Please note that many leagues (especially youth leagues) consider it very bad sportsmanship.
This trope is the prime reason Underdogs Never Lose.
Note this trope is only about characters getting second place, or at least placing highly enough to get a medal/trophy/etc., and then focusing on the fact that they still didn't win first. It's NOT about:
A genuinely mediocre-to-poor showing.
When there are actual consequences for getting second place, like not winning a certain prize that was the hero's main reason for entering (such as money to save the hero's beloved school from closing).
When a Video Game requires you to win a competition to advance the story.
Happens in Paradise Kiss. While the other members take it better, winning the second prize in the School Festival contest is the catalyst that sends George into a life crisis, believing he can't connect with the public (and thus achieve success as a fashion designer) without compromising his personal artistic vision. Yukari also takes it rather dramatically. Angst ensues, they break up. It's not the only reason, but it sure creates a lot of drama.
Fans have criticized the Pokémon anime for never letting Ash win any of the various League tournaments he enters. Such complaints ignore the fact that hundreds of trainers enter each of these tournaments, and the lowest Ash has ever finished is 16th overall (an impressive feat on its own, since it was his first time entering an official Pokémon League competition). And then there's the fact that he's competed in special Run the Gauntlet challenges against groups of highly skilled trainers and won both times. The same has been said for Dawn, particularly after she placed second in the Grand Festival behind one of her best friends and sources of advice and encouragement.
On the game side, at the end of Pokemon Red And Blue, Professor Oak gives Blue a speech on how disappointed he is in him, and how he needs to learn to treat Pokémon well like Red does, almost completely ignoring how Blue's methods got him past all the gyms and the Elite Four, and he'd still be Kanto's champion if Red hadn't shown up.
Neon Genesis Evangelion takes this trope to the logical extreme. Initially, when Shinji first surpasses Asuka's synch ratio, she's just pissed at him. Later, after being curbstomped three times in a row with Shinji always scoring the kill instead of her, she becomes extremely distraught, due to her past: she always prided herself on being the best so that she won't need any kind of help from anyone. By not being the best anymore and her rival consistently having a stellar performance, she's afraid of being put to the sidelines and as a result, her synch ratio is plummeting; seeing this, she also becomes afraid that if she drops low enough, she will be relieved of her duties which to her would be equal to being publicly humiliated in the worst way possible for a human. And the best part in all of this? She knows what's wrong but her pride doesn't let her admit it to herself.
Oh, it gets even better. Right after her third defeat (technically second since she couldn't attack Leliel, much less harm it), she's sent into battle again, knowing that this is the last chance the NERV leadership is giving for her: if she screws up this time, it's game over. Not only she doesn't get a single shot off at Arael, she undergoes the Trope Namer for Mind Rape instead. And she gets saved by the person she hates the most. Next time she's sent up against Armisael, she can't even get her Eva to move anymore and is withdrawn; as an indirect result, Rei-II is killed by the Angel despite Shinji's intervention ("you didn't send him out for me... am I really that worthless?"). What do NERV does in this situation? Does they try to solve Asuka's psychological problems and cheer her up? Noooo, they send her into early retirement and fetch a replacement instead.
Invoked once in Eyeshield 21, but never really enforced except that every team do his best to win. It's even subverted once, with Deimon make it to Kantou tournament despite only can get 3rd place.
In Bakuman。, Mashiro and Takagi are crushed to learn that they got third place with "The World is All About Money And Intelligence," (losing to Eiji and someone else) even though it surpasses all their previous efforts, since it means they will not be able to submit it for serialization. Otherwise, this trope is largely averted with a few exceptions (mainly Iwase), as when the main characters are starting out and want to get up past ninth place, Miura tells them that rather than try desperate tactics to go up, they should maintain their ranking, as anything above 10th place will not come up for cancellation.
Tiger & Bunny has Keith Goodman/Sky High struggling with this after Barnaby Brooks Jr. takes his place as the highest ranking superhero. However, being the Nice Guy to end all Nice Guys, he's not angry over no longer being the best so much as he's afraid that he can no longer live up to the expectations people have for him.
"You don't win silver — you lose gold." was from a Nike commercial, featuring Andre Agassi that ran during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Nike was roundly criticized for the line, as it was totally against the Olympic spirit. They yanked the campaign after just a few days and never mentioned it again.
There is also this commercial for the new show "Go On"
Thoroughly subverted in Surf's Up. Big Z humorously calls Cody a "loser" because he didn't come in first, and Chicken Joe is shocked he won - he was just having fun and it isn't clear he even knew he was in a contest. During the entire film, all of the interviewed characters say that loser is as loser does, regardless of whether they come in first or not - save Tank of course.
Cody:(amused) Well, I lost.
Big Z:(amused) Yeah. Me, too. Come on, loser.
In Wreck-It Ralph, all Vanellope has to do to be un-glitched is finish a race; it doesn't matter about her placement. Ralph acknowledges this, but she's insistent on winning, even though it puts her in more danger.
Considering who put her in the predicament in the first place, coming out the leader the race was just an added bonus to get even.
In The Karate Kid Part II, the bully from the last film seemed to be okay with his 2nd place trophy, but his teacher wasn't. In fact, that teacher smashes the trophy and physically attacks his student so viciously that Mr. Miyagi has to step in and teach the sensei some manners.
Also subverted in Bring It On. After all the crazy stuff they went through, it was a miracle they did as well as they did.
In Gattaca, the (wheelchair-bound) Jerome is like this:
Vincent: (looking at a medal) That's very nice.
Jerome: Are you colorblind, too? It's silver. Jerome Morrow was never meant to be second place.
Robert De Niro's character in the movie Meet the Fockers reacts this way to Greg's parents keeping all of his awards even though he never placed very high, derisively saying that he doesn't want to encourage mediocrity in his own family.
Played with in The Wild One: one of Johnny's gang steals the second-place trophy from a local motorcycle race and gives it to him; Johnny complains, "Why didn't you steal first?" "It was too big." Johnny displays the trophy prominently on his bike.
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby "If you ain't first, you're last." Ricky Bobby bases his entire life on this one phrase his father told him, and earnestly believes it to the point that he can't deal with the idea of someone being better than him. He has a nervous breakdown when he wrecks in his first race against Jean Girard and needs training just to know how to go fast again.
Subverted later on in the movie when Ricky's Dad says "Oh hell, Son, I was high that day. That doesn't make any sense at all, you can be second, third, fourth... hell you can even be fifth."
The coach of the Hawks in the first Mighty Ducks movie gazes at the one second-place banner in a long-row of first-place banners and remarks, "I sure wish they'd take that one down." Apparently, being perceived as not even making the top 3 or 4 teams that year is better than getting second.
It's easier to overlook a missing year than it is to overlook a lone yellow banner in a sea of black first-place finishes, especially as it is standard practice to place all banners next to each other in the rafters (meaning there wouldn't be a physical gap where 1973 would have been).
Averted in Fired Up, in which a perpetually losing squad ends up thirteenth in a tournament, but the captain feels it's an accomplishment, because it's ten places better than the previous year.
The Social Network has the race where the Winklevoss twins, as well as the rest of the Harvard rowing team, lose against the opposition and place 2nd. They are clearly displeased about it, and it becomes a Compliment Backfire when Prince Albert says repeatedly how he "never saw a race so close!"
Dylan Chu's father in Akeelah and the Bee makes it clear that to him, getting 2nd for the 3rd time in this spelling bee will make him "2nd your whole life!"
Glengarry Glen Ross, both the film and play, deal with a struggling real estate sales agency. The head office sends a big shot who flaunts his wealth and success while describing a change to the ongoing sales contest. First prize, as before, is a Cadillac. Second is a set of steak knives. Third is you're fired. By the way, there are four salesmen in the agency. The scene can be seen here (warning, profanity). It is well worth watching simply for its amazing cast.
Miranda Frost in Die Another Day betrayed her country solely because she got a silver medal in the Olympics, and the villain of the movie offered to make it look like the gold winner cheated.
In the Red Dwarf novel Better Than Life, a scene in Rimmer's childhood shows him nearly winning a race before another boy trips him up, and we're told his father's favourite phrase is "Winning isn't everything, but losing is nothing". But then we're shown Ace Rimmer in the same sports day, and he throws the race, because he realises another boy really needs to win it. While his mother stares in disbelief, he thinks "After all, losing isn't nothing."
Nanny Ogg in the Discworld series is perfectly aware of this, and prefers to come in second, because if you come in first, people are constantly trying to beat you and you're under pressure to keep coming in first. She likes coming second, because it's the runner-up that people pat on the back and say "It was a good try" and buy drinks for.
Subverted in the Kim Newman short story "The Germans Won", in which an alternative version of John Major lives life as a humble bus conductor.note The real John Major actually applied for a job as a bus conductor, but failed the exam, and went into politics instead. During an argument about the World Cup, one of the characters brings up this trope in relation to Britain and how they always come second at everything and how that makes them losers. The normally shy Major finds himself moved to argue this point with surprising passion:
"You're wrong, Jeffrey. There's nothing wrong with losing in a final. Being Second Best In The World means something. There's nothing wrong with being top of League Division Two. There's nothing wrong with being honestly Second-rate." "Show me a good loser, John, and I'll show you a loser." "Results don't matter, Jeffrey," said John. "Playing the game does. Life isn't results. When you die, they don't calculate your goal average and judge whether you should be promoted or relegated. Life is the game, the process of the game, moment to moment. If you do your best, no one can blame you. If you play fair, no one can argue with you. Better a successful dustbinman than a wash-out field marshall."
Subverted in Bill's New Frock by Anne Fine. During a race in gym class, all the other kids agree that they will let a disabled boy win, but because of this trope Bill can't bear to come second and so he speeds up and wins. However, the disabled boy is thrilled with second place because it's the best performance he has ever made in the class.
"No Second Place Winner" by Bill Jordan, a Border Patrolman and Marine during World War II. The book covers that in gunfights, very often there is no second place, you win or die. The idea for the title comes from a man getting second place at a gun tournament, then being told that, in essence, "At least you got second". The response was, "I wouldn't wish second place on my worst enemy."
Live Action TV
It's a theme in the second season of Sports Night. An athlete sets a new world record during a long jump competition; five minutes later, another athlete breaks this new record and wins the gold. Dan tells his therapist that no one will ever remember the first guy because he lost.
Several people who came in second for reality TV shows such as Survivor and the American Big Brother have acted like they lost the game because they didn't win.
Notably averted on The Amazing Race, where second place teams rarely ever take it badly. Of course, there is the occasional racer like Boston Rob who accuses the producers of fixing the race against him. But then, considering what other reality show he finished second on...
When Reality TV contestants go on a show after they get kicked off/voted out etc. (like doing an appearance on David Letterman or Today) they'll have all of the losing contestants...until the Grand Finale where the winner is announced. Then they'll only have the winner on, never mind the 2nd place (and possibly 3rd & 4th) who were established during the same show.
In Survivor, Russell Hantz won second place in Samoa, then third in Heroes vs. Villains. After Samoa, he acted like he was slapped in the face and practically murdered when he came in second out of twenty people, then third out of twenty people, all of which were former players and several of which were considered the best. however when he won the Sprint player of the year award, he immediately begun the typical Victory dance in Heroes vs. Villains.
Russell basically acted like a terrible sport in Heroes vs. Villains. Instead of congratulating Sandra in not angering potential votes, Russell began to attack the game itself saying that it was "Flawed" if someone who played differently than him could win, and immediately proposing an alternative rule(set) that would most definitely favour him. Basically, he came across as someone who played the game well and deserved more recognition from the fellow players...or a terrible sport who needs to learn that the game is not just played his way.
Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers has it's famous Green With Evil storyline that introduced the very first Sixth Ranger. It begins with Jason facing Tommy, a new kid in town, in a martial arts contest which ultimately ends in a tie. As Jason returns to his friends, the first words that come out of his mouth are "I didn't win." Granted, he doesn't dwell on it anymore after this one moment, but it's still an odd thing for a character like Jason to be concerned about.
Played with on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Bashir was second in his class, and outwardly kicked himself for the simple blunder on the test that caused him to be such. However, he reveals shortly that's it's part of how he comes on to girls. Plus after The Reveal about his "enhancements," it may be that he deliberately made the mistake as to keep his cover.
On Dance Moms, Abby Lee Miller likes to remind the girls that "Second place is the first one to lose".
On Glee, it's considered a failure if a show choir does not come in first place at Nationals. It doesn't matter how highly they did place, or that competition is not the focus of show choir in the first place; if they don't place at the very top, they might as well be at the bottom.
Also featured in the story of We Love Katamari. As a child, The King of All Cosmos took second place in a boxing tournament - while walking home, his father pitches the silver trophy in the river to the King's dismay. Later, the King and his father get in a fight - when the King goes to apologize, he sees his father looking at the silver trophy, and realises that his father must have fished it out of the river. This may also explain the King's attitude towards the player if he turns in a small katamari.
The King Of All Cosmos: "If We were doing it, it would be much, much bigger."
The King Of All Cosmos: "Is this all you want out of life? Mediocrity?"
In one mission in Elite Beat Agents, you are trying to get a runner with a cold back to health in order to win the big race. Depending on how well you do, he reacts with roughly equal enthusiasm to winning Gold or Silver, but is very distraught to have only won 3rd, even if that is pretty good for someone who just got over a cold.
In the Harvest Moon and Rune Factory series, winning a contest gets you high praise and affection from the other villagers. Don't win, even finishing in second, and everyone (even your spouse, if present) reacts in the same "You lost? You suck!" manner, whether it was second place or dead last.
Battlefield 3 includes an achievement called "First Loser" for having the second highest point total in the match. Although this goes against a theme of the Battlefield series, which usually rewards teamwork and downplays individual skill. Also, get this achievement if you are the best player on the winning team but were bested by someone on the losers.
In Tales of Graces, this is what prompted Hubert to grow from whiny crybaby to freaking general badass.
The Adventures Of Willy Beamish actually averts this. The Tootsweet Frog Jump is considered a big deal where Horny must beat Turbofrog, but you can keep going in the game if you only make second place, as you still win enough money to enter the Nintari championship, plus the jet-ski you need to reach Humpford Manor.
One of the anecdotes on Acts of Gord deals with a fighting game tournament Gord ran, in which first prize was a set of expensive game controllers and $20, second prize was a can of Coke and an autographed photo of himself and third prize was $20. The author of the website justifies this by saying, "The Gord likes to remind people that second place is just the first loser."
A Downfallparody video showing World of Warcraft guild SK Gaming reacting to their rival Nihilum getting the World First defeat of the Eredar Twins in Sunwell Plateau has Hitler/bds yelling "Shut up Mackelina you faggot! Second place is for fucking losers".
Archer mocks Ray for winning bronze in Olympic Slalom, saying that he lost, while Ray argues that third in the world is hardly the same as losing. Then, when Archer walks away, he starts crying, admitting it was a huge disappointment.
Subverted in King of the Hill. Hank doesn't win a shooting competition, and his dad won a bet he wouldn't. Then Bobby walks up and says, "Wow, Dad. Second place in a real competition." It's worth noting that Hank was established throughout the episode as being a really crummy shot to begin with, and was only worried about letting his own son down.
Happens in a later episode where Bobby takes to growing roses and fails in a florist competition. He's disappointed and depressed about it, but shocked when he sees Hank (who he actively hid his roses from in the beginning) planting his flowers in the garden. When Bobby asks why he'd do this even if he didn't win, Hank explains, "Well, the Cowboys don't win every game, but I still cheer them on year after year."
Batman Beyond had an episode where, after scoring second highest on an exam, one character was told by his mother that that makes him "the winning loser." Said boy then strikes a vendetta against the top scorer, who happens to be Batman's best friend.
To point out how ridiculously high the standards of the guy's mom were, he got 2397 out of 2400. The only person above him got a perfect score.
In A Boy Named Charlie Brown, Charlie Brown is a competitor in the National Spelling Bee Championship and ends up second and feels like a miserable failure. However, this is Fridge Logic considering that while misspelling a relatively easy word like "beagle" is embarrassing (especially when his pet Snoopy is one), the fact remains that Charlie Brown beat out almost all the top contenders in the entire country and that surely should count for something.
Inverted in I'm Spelling As Fast As I Can. Lisa gets second place in the Spellympics and is hailed as a winner in Springfield - after all, second place makes her "the biggest winner this town's ever produced".
An episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog had Katz attempting revenge on Muriel because he always came in second to her in Nowhere's cooking contests.
Katz (Receiving 2nd place trophy): Sad, isn't it?
Played with on The Weekenders. Tino got 3rd place in a horseshoes competition, during a weekend sports meet, which he was pretty proud of, considering he took up the sport that weekend. His friends didn't see what the big deal was, since he didn't win. Probably had to do with the fact that they all won their competitions.
In an episode of Futurama, Bender enters Zoidberg in a pet show. When Zoidberg wins second place, Bender says the page quote.
Applejack of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is rather devastated during "The Last Roundup" when she fails to bring home first place in the rodeo championship, and the prize money to help fix town hall. Not helped by the fact that she had won the Ponyville rodeo ten times in a row but couldn't succeed when she tried to compete in Canterlot.
Applejack: "Don't you get it? There's every color of ribbon down there. Every color... but... blue."
This is Rainbow Dash's general attitude, considering her cutiemark appeared when she was winning her first race.
In "Wonderbolts Academy", Rainbow Dash meets a fellow pegasus who believes this even more than she does...leading to the episode casting her as the voice of reason by comparison.
American Dad! shows Stan Smith as a living embodiment of the trope. Stan believes that when it comes to sports, you either win or you're just a pathetic loser. The episode "Every Which Way But Lose" has Stan constantly belittling his son, Steve, for not coming in 1st place in any sport. When Steve teams up with Roger and beats Stan's team in a football game, Stan takes the loss so badly that he almost commits suicide, believing he would rather die than to live life with a loss on his record.
Camp Lazlo subverted, Lazlo's team got second place, while Edward got first. But their 2nd place trophy was bigger than Edward 1st place, even Chip and Skip who got 3rd place have a bigger trophy than Edward.
The Buffalo Bills made it to the Super Bowl four straight years, only to lose all four times. Instead of being thought of as a team that dominated the American Conference by winning it four straight times, they're thought of as chokers.
2007 New England Patriots were undefeated in regular season play and were expected to win the championship. Analysts were calling them the greatest team of all time. Then they lost to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl and suddenly an 18-1 season just wasn't good enough to be the best.
The New York Yankees. If they don't win the World Series, their season is considered a failure. If it has been more than a couple of years since the Yankees last won, the New York sports media will often refer to them as having a "championship drought". When the team won the 2009 World Series, the occasion was treated as if it had been a long, long time since their previous one... which was actually just nine years prior. Over half the teams in Major League Baseball haven't won in the last 20.
The Brooklyn Dodgers were called "Dem Bums" in part because they would repeatedly win a league pennant before losing the World Series after, mostly against the Yankees. The Dodgers would finally win the World Series in 1955 before losing again in 1956 and moving to Los Angeles a few years later.
Similar to the Yankees, if a Canadian national hockey team doesn't win a tournament they're playing in, it's deemed a failure. If enough of the various tournaments (IIHF Junior, Men's/Women's Olympic, World Cup) are lost in a row, a national discussion on whether we're "losing our game" ensues. The fact that on the NHL side of things it's been 20 years since a Canadian team has one the Stanley Cup doesn't help; the national teams are suppose to bring redemption for the Canada's "NHL failures". Doesn't mean the wins aren't appreciated.
Olympic bronze medalists are said to be happier with their lot than Olympic silver medalists: A bronze medalist was close to not medalling at all, while the silver medalist could have had gold.
Specifically to the tournament games (such as hockey and curling) in the Olympics. If you got silver, that means you just lost the gold-medal game, but if you got a bronze medal, that means you won the bronze medal game. Bronze winners are also given at least a day or two before the official medal ceremony. Which is held mere moments after the Gold/Silver game, giving the silver "losers" no time to relax and dwell on the matter. It's no wonder many silver hockey players look depressed, seeing how they just lost 10 minutes ago.
Averted by the Croatian basketball team in 1992; they talked about how happy they were to be winning silver before the gold medal game was even played. They were going up against the Dream Team lead by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and had no illusions about winning.
The 1972 United States Olympic basketball team still has not accepted their silver medals, and they don't intend to do so any time soon: they claim that they were robbed of their victory by the referees.
American gymnast McKayla Maroney has been gracious in her public comments, saying that she is grateful and appreciative of her silver medal in the vault despite being an overwhelming favorite for gold. Still, her face on the medal stand provides the picture for this trope as well as launching a meme (which, to her credit, she's had fun with) — and, given that she would have won if she'd not sat down her second vault, it's difficult to blame her for kicking herself.
There was significant media controversy in the Australia during the London Olympics centered around this attitude being incredibly prevalent towards the Australian swimming team, to the point where conflict around the long-standing tendency for this trope to be employed towards the team overshadowed the Olympics themselves for the first several days of competition, particularly Emily Seebohm all but bursting into tears in an interview after placing second in 100m backstroke because she thought she'd disappointed everyone, which many thought exposed just how much pressure the sporting culture places on athletes and how much backlash they really do have to fear if they take home anything other than gold.
Todd Sampson summed it up on The Gruen Transfer: "We like to think we're a sport-mad nation. The truth is, we're a winning-mad nation."
Dale Earnhardt was often quoted saying "Second place is just the first loser".
A popular saying among NASCAR fans is that "No one remembers who finished second in the Daytona 500". Which is ironic given that one of things Earnhardt is remembered for is finishing second in the Daytona 500 over and over and over...
Cale Yarborough had said "If he crowded me on the track it would be ok but when they ran us down we lost it". Basically the racing driver's way of saying "I don't like being shoved out and crashing but I really hate being outrun and finishing second".
For three seasons (2011, 2012, and 2013) NASCAR season, driver Martin Truex Jr. finished more closest to first than every other driver in NASCAR by coming in second in race after race after race after race. Rather than this consistent performance being rightly seen as a mark of a highly skilled driver, pretty much all of NASCAR (including Truex and his fans) consider him "underperforming".
UCLA Bruins football coach Red Sanders and, more famously, Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, are both known for saying that "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."
In the professional mexican soccer league, the "Cruz Azul" team is infamous for almost always making it to the grand final but rarely winning the championship, the team got the nickname "regala campeonatos", it doesn't help that for some reason, the team usually (though, not always) performs poorly and well under the level they displayed on the rest of the championship.
The Bayer Leverkusen squad which finished second in in all three of the Bundesliga, UEFA Champions League and the domestic German cup in the same season was nicknamed the Neverkusen by the media, even though it was probably the best season in the whole history of the team.
One of tennis star Serena Williams' more famous quotes; "At the end of the day, if you aren't first, you're last."
A common joke relates to this: "If you're out hiking with a friend and you encounter a bear, don't worry about out-running the bear, just outrun your friend."
This can commonly apply to students who score 99 out of a possible 100 on a test (or miss only one problem in general).