If victory has an established scale - gold, silver, bronze - then losing comes in more complicated degrees. There is the honourable loss, the rout, the brave failure, the unseemly collapse. Yet most hideous of all is the almost-win.
Or what we call fourth place.
Sixth place is just not your day. Fifth place is still some distance from a medal. But fourth place often is the medal touched and let go. It's a podium slipped from. It's "if only" territory. One better shot, you think, but it's too late.
Four years have gone.
Jasmine Ser knows this place too well. She was fourth at a competition in Granada this year. Fourth in 10m air rifle at the Commonwealth Games. And fourth yesterday in the 10m air rifle. Not once, but twice. Fourth in the team event, fourth as an individual after one lousy shot.
You'd understand if she wanted to dent her gun, but she shrugged in that way only athletes do. As if to say: this is the life I chose. It's cruel, but every day she gets something out of it. Even yesterday. As she said: "This fourth place is a bit special because I fought my way back in the final."
At one point even the artless stadium commentator said she's "probably eliminated", yet Ser fought from fifth to fourth with a shot of 10.9. In shooting, perfect exists and this was it.
And this is the crazy beauty of athletes: even in defeat, they find their little victories. Perhaps it's their way of staying sane. As Ser said: "It's not easy to win and it's not easy to lose. So you have to get into a habit to tell your brain positive things."
Ser (415.9 points in qualification), Martina Veloso (413.6) and Cheng Jian Huan (411.6) - the sum of their scores decides the team placing - had a chance at a bronze.
They lost it by .5, which proves that in shooting a hair's breadth is not a notion it's a real measurement. Then they won it when China, who set a world record, were disqualified for an equipment violation. Then they lost it when China were reinstated.
It was bizarre and confusing but it ended with a masterful bit of maturity from the 14-year-old Martina: "China really deserved the medal. They shot a world record." There was no griping here, only grace.
Modern finals, where shooters are eliminated one by one till only two are left, make for a taut, emotional, visceral ride. It almost turns an almost meditative exercise into an almost confrontational pursuit. In this tension, consistency is elusive and Ser could never quite hold it for long enough in her small, gifted hands.
She was ranked seventh out of eight shooters after her first shot, then sixth, then third and on it went. She'd have a 10 and 10.1 and then a brilliant 10.6 and 10.7. She'd have another 10.1 and 10 and then the 10.9. She was very good all day but to win she needed great. Still, even till late, a bronze was possible. Till she followed the 10.9 with a 9.7 and then only elimination was probable. As she said later: "I fired too early."
In a sport of exquisitely fine margins, Ser has very subtly altered. She is a petite, taut woman with a quiet, coiled intensity, yet she is more forgiving of herself. Once defeat used to eat her like an acid, but now she gives herself a little credit. Turning 24 in a day in a sport with no age limit, she says: "I feel myself improving."
But if she's less harsh on herself, she's still tough. In her qualification, her first 28 shots were all 10 and over. But in her last 12 shots she stumbled gently. Four shots just under 10. Four minute errors. Her 415.9 was her highest overseas score all year, yet her face as she finished was sombre.
All she could think of was the team medal lost: Damn, maybe she could have finished better. She was hurting and it was beautiful. Because pain is the only route to greatness and the only way past fourth place.
This article was first published on September 23, 2014.
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