When the London Olympics end in a week, 955 medals will have been awarded to individuals and teams, testimonies to the years of work that went into it all. There also will be 249 stories such as Lorig’s: those of athletes and teams that have put in the same work, the same hours, the same sacrifice — yet finished fourth, just missing the medal podium and thus without a glistening piece of gold or silver or bronze to wear home.
Lorig’s fate happens to all sorts of athletes in every sport, often by the tiniest margins and with all manner of ramifications. The American men’s eight rowing team placed fourth here — by three-tenths of a second. Michael Phelps, who now has a record 22 Olympic medals, would have 23 had he swum the 400-meter individual medley 35 hundredths of a second faster. Reese Hoffa solidified his standing in American track and field annals when he put the shot 21.23 meters, good enough to win bronze. Noted further down the page: Hoffa’s heave cost American Christian Cantwell a medal of his own — by four centimeters.
Medals have been won and lost here both by performance and protest, by obvious decisions and obscure rules. And whether the athletes realize it or not, their lives have changed because of it.
“There’s a huge difference in third place and fourth place,” said James Carter, a former Olympic hurdler from Baltimore. “I always tell people that an Olympic bronze medal will open a lot of doors that fourth won’t.”
It is a fact that is acknowledged, mostly out of the spotlight, around these Games. When British swimmer Stephanie Proud pulled herself from the pool in a semifinal earlier this week, she sobbed as a BBC reporter approached for a live interview. She had finished ninth, one spot out of an opportunity to swim the final.
“Ninth,” she cried, “is so hard.”
The announcer patted her on the shoulder, offering consolation. “Fourth, though, is the worst,” she said.
“Yes,” Proud said, perking up. “Fourth is probably worse.”
And so many know it. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Carter was a brash 22-year-old, relatively new to the international track scene. Now, he is a 34-year-old IBM employee in North Carolina, coaching some track on the side. In between, he learned the lessons so many in London are learning now: The work, so much work, might not pay off.
“Before my first Olympics, I knew I was one of the elite in the world,” Carter said. “But how elite?”
In a way, that’s what the Olympics amount to, sorting the already elite into sub-categories. In the 400-meter hurdles in Sydney, Carter ran a personal-best time, but was fourth, 23 hundredths of a second behind the bronze medal winner.