Q: Name the one thing at the Olympics that sucks worse than a
French figure skating judge.
A: Fourth place.
Finishing fourth at the Olympics is like getting 100,000 shares
of Enron or being the next person in line after the free beer
runs out. As Mark Twain would say, it's the difference between
lightning and lightning bug.
Win a medal in Salt Lake City, and you're treated like a
returning astronaut. The medal gets hung around your neck by,
say, the king of Sweden. You toss flowers to salivating women,
kick it with Bob Costas on the NBC set and tingle at the Medals
Plaza, where 20,000 people roar every time you doff your beret.
The rest of your life is just walking past smiling bouncers into
the coolest parties and having the words "Olympic medalist"
follow your name.
Fourth place? Never heard of you.
No medal, no press conference, no check from your country's
Olympic committee, no endorsements, nada, bubkes, zilch.
Medalists get the Waldorf Astoria. Fourth place gets a leaky
hotel room in Altoona with gymnastic honeymooners next door.
Fourth place is Polish snowboarder Jagna Marczulajtis, who was
racing for a bronze in parallel snowboarding last week when she
lost an edge halfway down and fell. Weeping, she moaned, "Fourth
place is the worst place on earth. You are so close to being
there, you can taste it."
Fourth place is U.S. bobsled driver Brian Shimer, who has
competed in five Olympics and never won a medal. He lost the
bronze in 1998 by .02 of a second. Two-hundredths of a second.
You can lose that much time to a stubborn snowflake on the track,
a wobbly spike on a shoe, the head wind from a butterfly's burp.
"I still think about it today," said Shimer, who finished ninth
in the two-man event on Sunday, "but I've learned there's more to
life than bobsled."
Yeah? Like what?
Fourth place is Canadian swimmer Marianne Limpert touching the
wall a minuscule .12 of a second out of a bronze at the Sydney
Games and sobbing, "Fourth place feels like last....Maybe some
press-on nails would've made the difference."
Fourth place is no place. Twentieth place is better. At least
20th place lets you sleep at night. Do you know what .12 of a
second does to your REM sleep? Fourth place is back to your
parents' bagel shop, maybe finishing your degree at Walla Walla
Remember, in 1994, when Tonya Harding's husband hired thugs to
put a few runs in Nancy Kerrigan's hose? Who can say the madness
didn't spring from Kerrigan's having finished third and Harding
fourth at the '92 Games? Now the bronze medalist is a skating
diva, married to her agent, the mother of a five-year-old son and
a multimillionaire. The fourth-place finisher is a failed
wrestling manager who was just evicted for not making rent.
Fourth place is cruel. In 1972 Finnish cross-country skier Juha
Mieto missed the bronze by .06 of a second. It's lucky he wasn't
skiing the biathlon, because Juha might have shot
This year the USOC is paying $25,000 to gold medalists, $15,000
to silver and $10,000 to bronze. Fourth place gets a crummy piece
of paper that looks like a certificate an eight-year-old would
get for playing on an Elks Club soccer team. It reads, "For your
participation and sportsmanship at the XIX Olympic Winter Games."
Says American freestyle skier Jonny Moseley, who finished fourth
last week, "It's like, Congratulations! You completed the
All that fourth place gets you is to a doping control station.
The IOC tests the first-through fourth-place finishers. That
means, you, Mr. Fourth Place, have to wait an hour while the
three heroes get their medals and kisses and slobbering press
conferences. Then you get to go inside a little room with that
giddy threesome--all of whom are celebrating the greatest day of
their lives, thanks to the fact they finished ahead of you--and
pee. With somebody watching.
Maybe fourth place just needs a good p.r. firm. After all, two of
the coolest guys in Olympic history, Dan Jansen and Steve
Prefontaine, finished fourth. What fourth place really needs is
its own medal--something symbolic, something that reflects the
feeling you get the rest of your life as it hangs around your
Is lead taken?
COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA
"Fourth place is the worst place on earth. You are so close to
being there, you can taste it."