At Olympics, fourth place is cruelest fate of all

When the wind whipped across Lord’s Cricket Ground on Thursday, wobbling the arrow fired from the bow of Khatuna Lorig and sending it well wide of her target, there was little else to do but weep. Lorig, a Georgian-born American archer pursuing an Olympic medal in a sport in which the U.S. rarely excels, has worked through five Olympics over 20 years. She was in the bronze medal match. And she lost.

“There was a lot of tears, a lot of regrets, a lot of rewinding in my mind,” Lorig said some 24 hours later. “Why did it happen?”

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.

“At that point, I said ‘Okay, I’m one of the best in the world; I can compete with these guys,’ ” Carter said. “My confidence level went up.”

Athletes who have been in Carter’s position at a young age, when there are more Olympics ahead, said they can react that way. On Saturday, Laura Bennett competed in the Olympic triathlon in and around some of London’s most spectacular landmarks. It was a competition informed by her experience four years ago in Beijing, her first Olympics. There, the bronze medal was up for grabs. There, Bennett finished fourth.

“Fourth was very, very disheartening,” Bennett said. “And to kind of look back and say sometimes, ‘Was that my best?’ I didn’t realize it at the time, but was that my best chance to medal? I was one of the favorites to win one, and when you’re there, sometimes you don’t really realize it.”

Bennett’s husband, training partner and chief adviser, Australian Greg Bennett, was also an elite triathlete. At the 2004 Athens Games, he finished — you guessed it — fourth.

“They both know what it feels like,” said Andy Schmitz, USA Triathlon’s high performance general manager. “. . . I think she’d be here anyway, but I think she’s fueled so much more by not having that medal. They really planned their last four years on a medal here.”

Saturday, Bennett couldn’t deliver, finishing 17th. And in fourth, 10 seconds out of a medal in an event that takes more than two hours: American Sarah Groff. At the finish line, she cried.

“Fourth is the worst position,” she said.

At least Bennett’s performance in Beijing and Groff’s here came with something to look forward to: another chance, albeit four years away. Phelps long ago turned his golds into endorsement deals for mainstream corporations, Gillette and Subway and others. But in order for less prominent Olympians to capitalize on their performances, they must have the right narrative.

Robert Stone, the vice president of licensing at Excel Corp., a sports licensing firm, said members of the favored U.S. women’s soccer team, for instance, can’t expect new marketing opportunities without a third straight gold medal. Others, though, might spin their heartache into opportunity.

“Let’s not kid ourselves: Having a gold around your neck is, without question, an amazing value,” Stone said. “But Americans also love rooting for the underdog, that comeback story. . . . There can be a twist with that fourth-place finisher that a consumer will say, ‘Oh my God. How great is that? She works so hard.’ ”

Take American gymnast Aly Raisman. In the women’s all-around competition, she tallied a score of 59.566, the exact total accumulated by Russia’s Aliya Mustafina.

“I was hoping they’d give us both the bronze,” Raisman said.

Alas, a rarely invoked rule — in which the lowest score for each competitor is dropped — broke the tie. Mustafina took bronze. Raisman finished fourth, a result she called “definitely upsetting.”

But by that point, Raisman was already an American heroine, one of the gymnasts who helped the United States to the team gold. Others aren’t as fortunate. When Carter, the hurdler who was fourth in 2000, arrived in Athens four years later, he was a better, more focused athlete who had run the fastest time in the world that year. He went with one intention: win gold. The reality?

“To this day,” Carter said, “I can’t explain the final.”

After 300 meters, he led. And then, his body shut down. Felix Sanchez of the Dominican Republic passed him. And then, after the penultimate hurdle, two others passed as well.

“I’m like, ‘Oh God. I’m in fourth place again,” Carter said. “When people say the word ‘devastated,’ I think that’s the word that fits the most. I’m like, ‘Fourth place again? Do I really want to run track any more?’”

Carter did not speak to anyone that night. Instead, he walked aimlessly around the Olympic Village, miserable. But he continued his career, and though he didn’t make the 2008 Olympics, he won a silver at the 2005 world championships. He is retired, but he is among the best Americans ever in his event.

“The real world is a whole lot different,” he said.

Lorig, now 38, said she is not yet ready for the real world. In Beijing, she was fifth. Here, she was fourth. She will aim to compete again in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

“Maybe this will give me more confidence for the next time,” she said. “I don’t know. I’m old enough. I’m so experienced. And I’m so close.”

But when she travels home, her luggage will be no heavier. A medal, the bit of tangible evidence of success for the outside world, was so close. And now it is four more years away.

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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