I think we are approaching the subject from another point of view that the one we were discussing. Of course, from the point of view of an athlete who has made immense sacrifices since tender youth anything but gold is a failure. You can listen to this very informative interview with gymnast Shawn Johnson (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEmtRuJwb7A&ab_channel=TheEastFamily) that will bring you in the mind of a favourite for gold medal who came up second...you will see that after many years, even though she came to accept it, the regret is still lingering.I figure I'll point to underdogs to show that "Gold or nothing" doesn't really apply to G.O.A.Ts.
"People really only can remember the winners." Rasmus Winther
"Losing at Worlds felt like throwing away everything I had worked towards and built." Martin Larsson
"Only five people are truly able to make their names known [...] because nobody remembers the runners-up." Hu Shou-Chieh
"To me, I'm like, what a failure. We made it all the way to the Finals and we didn't win.
So... I don't think I'll look back with pride ever on that. Like, I will always be really ashamed that we didn't win the Finals." Yiliang Peng
Athletes who aren't expected to win will still feel like they were expected to win. I think you underestimate the pressure that athletes place on themselves to get gold. Losing or getting runners up can still mean people will still be your fan and will still support you, but you need to get the gold to cement your legacy.
Of course that make that skater any less great in the eyes of their fan; I don't think Alysa Liu or Mariah Bell will suddenly stop becoming relevant or less loved if they fail to win Nationals or Skate America, but to point to runners up in general and say "that is what success looks like" or "this is peak figure skating" is missing the mark.
Do we think that Mao would not have loved to be in Yuna's place at Vancouver? Do we think Michelle would not have loved to be in the place of Tara or Sarah? Of course not, that must be the most regretful moment of all their life. However, this is just the point of view of the athletes, who are totally entitled to feel that way given the fact that they spent years of their lives chasing that elusive gold medal.
Now, let's switch to the point of view of figure skating fans. Has the gold medal really cemented Sarah Hughes status as one of the greatest skaters in the word (just to make an example, you could mention others such as Lysacek)? If I remember correctly, Michelle at the time was paid millions to skate in ice shows and you would think that people would have flocked to see Sarah instead. Can Mao be considered not successful for the lack of an Olympic medal? Can Midori? In the unlikely, thanks God, event that Sasha Trusova leaves the sport tomorrow, wouldn't she be remembered as a super pioneer of ladies advancement in the future? My point is that some exceptional skaters, not all of them, really contributed to the sports either technically or artistically and even if they lack an Olympic gold medal they will be remembered not only by their fans but also by history.