On the giant screen in the arena, as the results electronically unfold, our eyes follow a predictable pattern. They race to first place, flit to second, stop at third. It is when we often look away. As if fourth place is irrelevant, as if the tale of a race is only told in three names, as if any other story doesn't hold us.
Fourth, we think, is the cruellest place. Last place has no chance, but the fourth has a medal chance. They are the almost-famous, caught in sport's "if only" territory, an inch from a podium sometimes and a single heartbeat from bronze.
In the women's mass start road race, five cyclists finished third with the same time. All were 0.01 sec behind second place. But only one stood on the podium and earned bronze while four were relegated to lower positions by the photo-finish picture. None, to our knowledge, publicly and sulkily blamed God or karma.
The ancient Greeks valued both sport and philosophy for perhaps they understood it was tough to compete if you were not a philosopher of sorts. Who else but athletes confront so frequently the profound issue of failure?
No one so young fails so often in public, in slow motion, as they do and must then explain it a few minutes later, while out of breath, to a TV camera which beams images to millions of judgmental people. Often, if we are in a particularly cruel mood, we will say they have failed their nations.
Yet athletes shrug at us and smile at life and carry on. Like sailor Ku Zamil Ku Anas, who left his family for a few months, trained in Europe, had water in his boat and missed a bronze medal in the 470 class, by three points. Then he said about fourth place: "It's okay. I accept it."
We underestimate athletes for they wear fourth place with honesty and without fuss, for it is not an unfamiliar place. They know to be great you must visit fourth place on your way up to gold and they know on your descent to ordinariness you will have to travel that way again.
Our reporters who tracked down fourth-place finishers found frustration of course and disappointment, yet also dignity, delight and decency. Caleb John Christian Stuart came fourth in the shot put and then fourth again in the discus and yet did not lose his candour. "Fourth place is always uncomfortable," he said but then added: "These three that got medals, they deserve it."
Athletes might mope in private but they are creatures almost conditioned to be optimistic. Even in fourth place there has to be something worthy - like say a personal best - because if you can't find any meaning in a performance then how do you start again the next day? Positivity is their armour against the broken heart.
And so Phan Thi Lieu came fourth in the women's mass start road race but she had helped her team-mate win gold and that was both mission and reward. "I completed my duty and I am satisfied," she said.
And so Joshua Tay came fourth in the wakeboard event, yet he said, "I wanted to do my best and this was my best" and that is its own comfort. There is nothing dramatic to these athletes' answers and yet there is something graceful and gallant to them.
Fourth place is part of the natural order of sport, a simple ranking wherein an athlete always know where he stands. Occasionally we forget this. By not allowing a single nation to win gold, silver and bronze in some events - and awarding bronze to fourth place from another nation - we make a mockery of that order and also of sport.
Only merit must decide medals, not some vague notion of regional goodwill and quotas. For third place to be meaningful it cannot ever be a gift. Because fourth place wants to earn it.
This article was first published on June 16, 2015.
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