June 1968. The school year winds to conclusion. Still, for me at least, ten years old and finishing grade 6 at the local elementary, one very important event remains on the calendar.
Most importantly, in the various competitions, beautiful rosettes will be up for grabs. Blue for first, red for second, white for third. I desperately want one.
However, there are obstacles to overcome. I possess decent stamina, but otherwise am undersized and somewhat one paced. Realizing these limitations will blunt my chances in the running races, I decide to focus on the ball throw.
In the weeks before, I practice religiously. I learn quickly that throwing is not necessarily something kids are born good at. Rather, technique is important. A smooth action, along with balance, leverage and forward momentum, is key.
The event duly gets underway. Each entrant receives three throws, hustling down a short runway before hurling a white orb downfield. Our teacher, holding a battered clipboard and the end of a measuring tape, dutifully marks the landing point with a coloured stick. And records the distance.
I wonder if my last toss has been good enough, pray that it has been. Join the throng surrounding the teacher, hope to sneak a peek as he tots up the results. Yet, as my eyes process the list of names, zero in on the final placings, I feel a stab of despair, then a real gut punch. I hurry away. Frustration gives way to sadness; tears well up. There will be no coveted rosette for me. I miss out by a few inches and one measly place.
The disappointment lingers to this day, a hangover of sorts. Instinctively, I find myself always watching for, and listening to, others who narrowly miss out on reaching the podium.
Because, so often, it is hard to swallow a fourth-place finish. For, when being timed, measured or judged, virtually every athlete or team at some point is positioned nicely for gold, silver or bronze.
Unfortunately, fourth place wins nothing. If a medal was to be awarded, it would likely be made of plastic. Given honourable mention, the winner of the non-winner category.
In fact, a friend suggests to me that fourth should be a verb. As in an athlete fourths it. Or, despite a herculean effort, fourths out. While I become especially suspicious of those who take a fourth-place finish in stride, who claim it to be the best thing ever to happen to them. Because it isn’t.
Indeed, fourth place finishes become for me a particular morbid fascination. They are choc-a-bloc with bitter disappointment, letdown, regret, anger, re-examination, and depression.
Take Sven Hammawald, a German ski jumper. Though already a respected and highly decorated performer on the world stage, a fourth place result in the Large Hill event at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics leaves him in a state of weltschmerz, a word expressing melancholy, sadness and weariness.
Equally disheartened is British triathlete Laura Bennett. An agonizing fourth in the 2008 Beijing Games, she trains like a demon in advance of the ensuing London Olympics. She fully plans to medal. Yet, it all goes badly wrong, as she slides back alarmingly to 17th. Still, at least her misery has company. Husband and coach, Australian Greg Bennett, himself finished fourth in the triathlon, back in 2004 in Athens.
And what about James Carter?? The American 400m hurdler, fourth in the 2000 Sydney competition, arrives in Athens four years later having run the fastest time in the world that year. Yet, in the lead more than halfway through the final race, he stumbles down the stretch.
Fourth once again, Carter is devastated. He cannot bring himself to speak with anyone. Utterly disconsolate, he wanders aimlessly about the Olympic Village. Understands the difference between a place on the podium and the alternative. Knows absolutely that an Olympic medal will open doors that fourth won’t.
Moreover, for every Sven, Laura and James, there are a multitude of others. And not just at an Olympic Games, where some 1000 medals are awarded to individuals and teams. In fact, there will be countless stories and photos of athletes and squads who have put in the same work, the same hours, made the same sacrifices, yet finish fourth.
Of course, let us not forget the fourths of all fourths. So, spare a thought for a certain USA Nordic relay team and the worst kind of fourthing, given that only four teams featured in its final race. Further console the Russian ice skaters Totmianina and Marinin, who fourth, then stay there as Canadian duo Pelletier and Sale are moved from silver to gold in the wake of an egregious judging scandal. Alas, apparently not every team gets bumped up a notch.
Perhaps it all is a bit silly, given that finishing fourth can be a magnificent, noteworthy achievement. Still, American Olympian Sarah Groff weeps unashamedly after finishing mere seconds away from a triathlon medal at London 2012, in an event which takes over two hours to complete. “Fourth is the worst position” she laments.
I feel her pain. Even now, more than a half century after the fact, I can still see my final throw tracking through the summer breeze. Every time, in my mind, I will the ball to stay aloft, hope beyond hope for those precious extra few inches. Yearn for a rosette.
As is the case with a host of others, in so many sporting disciplines, I get very close. But not close enough, rather just knocking at the door instead.
Yet, the door is always locked. And no one answers.
Fourth. It’s a lonely place.