GANGNEUNG, South Korea — The first thing I noticed about ice dancer Madison Chock was that she was so much smaller in person. Most on-ice athletes are. The skates normally provide a boost. But standing next to a railing that separated her from a horde of reporters, she looked downright tiny.

Most of the Olympians are smaller than you think.  Absent the gear and the distance, they are not intimidating. I stood in a scrum with Shaun White. He is just a medium-height guy. Lindsey Jacobellis was much shorter than me. From a foot or so away, the larger-than-life Olympians here feel remarkably unimposing.

I didn’t expect Chock to cast an intimidating shadow. But still, when she and partner Evan Bates marched to their interrogations after an embarrassing fall in their free dance ruined years of work, the 25-year-old — who had long since given up on holding back her tears —  just looked so small.

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“Everybody’s looking at us like we’re injured puppy dogs,” Bates joked, without cracking a smile. He was right. Everyone — from their U.S. Olympic Committee handlers to the reporters charged with making them relive the fall — emanated sympathy. Often, sports reporting requires holding back those feelings, and Chock and Bates still had to answer for the mistake. This is how this works. Baseball players and football players and the rest answer for their tiniest tumbles every single day. Those who take them in the biggest moments — the Bill Buckners of the world — answer for them for a lifetime.

Bates and Chock will do that, too. Jacobellis has answered for one premature celebration for more than a decade and, because she hasn’t won the gold medal that would render those questions moot, will probably do so forever.

But in these sports, in this world, the pain is sharper, and the time to think about it endless. In the major professional sports, where massive wealth offsets defeat, where fans pay money to support the endeavor, where athletes are employed to entertain, sympathy is harder to generate. And in my experience, because of that money and the luxury their job provides, defeat does not render those athletes as miserable somehow.

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Exceptions exist. I’ve watched Max Scherzer wander around the clubhouse, eyes wide in devastated shock, after two Game 5 losses. I’ve seen a team whose legacy will only be defined in October continue to stumble there, unable to change its reputation. But most of those players play again. Most of them get the same stage a year later, or at least the same chance to reach that stage. And most of them return to comfortable lifestyles.

In the Olympics, a mishap can mark the lasting memory of an entire career. Many athletes will have to find real jobs when they return home. American skeleton racer John Daly has already returned to work. U.S. speedskater Brian Hansen said he’ll probably start looking soon. Bates has been skating for some time now, and Chock might need surgery. With young teams climbing the rankings, this might have been their best chance. As Chock choked through tears, she wondered whether it was their only one.

Everyone knows all this, of course. Even an Olympic rookie like me knows the raw emotions of a once-every-four-years sport are always the story, along with the adversity and challenges that generate them. One reader continues to remind me via email of her rating system for Olympic stories: the hankie. My recent story on short-track speedskater John-Henry Krueger earned three hankies, she said. Someday, I hope to hit four.

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But to be here, in person, and see the margins and those who navigate them — it’s just different. Chock is roughly my age. I can’t imagine being given one story every four years and being told the legacy of my career would depend on it.

Which brings me to my four-hankie point: In person, the Olympians all just seem so small. I have concluded that it’s remarkable any of them succeed at all. Before I came here, I would have been stunned when Chock and Bates fell, alarmed to see Nathan Chen stumble, surprised when Mikaela Shiffrin didn’t win slalom, and so on. After being here, I’m struck by how human they all seem. These are not super humans, most are not insulated superstars, and so few are larger-than-life by any definition. They are talented, hard-working athletes whose lives pivot on seconds while the whole world is watching. No one should be surprised that Olympic stories often lead the hankie ratings. Frankly, it’s a wonder any Olympic stories are hankie-free at all.

Read more entries in this series:

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