KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- The New York Times has been running a series throughout these Olympics called "Fourth," which focuses on those poor souls who finish just short of a medal. It's sometimes charming and sometimes sad -- "I think I've said all there is to say about being fourth. It sucks. It's terrible, " a crying Canadian luger Alex Gough said -- and a terrific idea for an ongoing feature this fortnight. I check in with it after every medal is awarded.
What's strange about it, though, and what makes it uniquely Olympian, is the notion that finishing fourth is the definition of just missing out rather than, you know, finishing second. In any other sport, finishing second is the thing that hurts. We have an American sports culture that fetishizes winning above all else; men and women are expected to give up everything in slavish, eternal pursuit of absolute victory. If they don't finish first, if they fall merely one spot short, the whole endeavor is seen as a failure. The mountaintop is all that matters. Dan Marino, Charles Barkley, Ted Williams … they finished in the top three tons of times. It garnered them no quarter. The Buffalo Bills are not the earners of four consecutive silver medals.
But here, third place is a godsend. Third place is enough. The mountain cluster was all a-twitter yesterday with stories of the wild late-night celebration of Australian Lydia Lassila and her fellow countrymen, how joyous and sharing they were with their revelry. The Australian home base for these Olympics is just across the street from a media hotel, and the party was open to all. Thus: There are several journalists who will be coming home with pictures of themselves wearing Lassila's bronze medal. Everyone wanted to be a part of it, and Lasilla, understanding the power of the thing, was generous to all of them. Jeez, who wouldn't want to put a bronze medal around their neck? (I desperately wish I had been there.) The medal is a physical representation of finishing worse than two other people, being the runner-up to the runner-up … and it's amazing.
It's refreshing, if entirely counter to the whole way the rest of our American sports culture is structured. (And probably our American culture in general.) You got a good sense of how vital it was to medal -- how really it's more important not to finish fourth than it is to actually finish first -- at the men's aerials finals tonight. It was undeniable that these guys were here to get a medal and weren't too broken up about what material it was made of. The very design of the sport, and its tournament here, is set up to make any finish in the top three the most important goal of all.
First, a little about men's aerials. This is a crazy person sport; to do this, you have to be a lunatic. Basically, these people head down a slope on skis that has a ramp at the end that is nearly perpendicular to the earth. They are sent hurtling into the air, five stories high, which is scary enough; once they're up there, they start twisting and flipping and spinning and all sorts of terrifying contortions. Then -- and this is the hard part -- they have to land.
They do all this on purpose.
Here is a clip of the winning tricks from the last Olympics, in Vancouver, to see what it looks like when this is done perfectly.
And here is a clip of what it looks like when it goes terribly wrong. (And it often goes terribly wrong.)
Most of the top jumpers know how to crash better than those people do. Canada's Travis Gerrits landed his first jump of qualifying at too steep an incline and clearly realized his immediate peril. He ducked his head forward and did two forward flips as his skis broke away, and somehow was up and giggling for the cameras afterward. This is a sport in which one of the most important things to know is how to recover when you smash into the snow after falling 60 feet from the ski at an unexpected angle. Like I said: For crazy people.
Anyway, so the way this sport awards its medals is by winnowing its field, in separate heats, from 21 to 12 to 8 to, finally, 4. So if you've made it into the last four, much like the semifinals in hockey, you've got an excellent chance at a medal. So you have a decision to make: Do you do your craziest, most impressive tricks in that round to go for the Gold, or do you play it (relatively, obviously) safe and just make sure you do enough to stay out of last place, trying an "easier" trick to assure that you won't fall? This is complicated by the fact that you can't repeat tricks, and you only get one try.
There's a strategy to it, and it was on display in the final. The final four of the field tonight were, in order of their jumps, Australia's David Morris, Belarus' Anton Kushnir, China's Guangpu Qi and China's Zongyang Jia. (The United States' Mac Bohonnon, a virtually unknown 18-year-old kid with a whisper of peach fuzz mustache and the nervous, cute demeanor of someone who has never been interviewed before in his life and is more nervous about that than the fact that he's competing in the Olympics, finished fifth, just missing the final round. He was cool with it. "If I'd told myself I was gonna finish fifth at the Olympics, I'd be pretty darned excited," he said.) Each trick is given a numbered level of difficulty, in numbered form. Morris was clearly the least accomplished jumper; he'd barely sneaked into the final and had done less difficult tricks all day. But he was smart about it: He did a back double full-full-full, a trick with only a 4.525 level of difficulty. He landed it, scored 110.41 and put himself in perfect position.
After all, the three men going after him were doing tricks with difficulties of 5.000, 5.000 and 4.900, respectively. Kushnir, in front of a loud Belarusian crowd, nailed his trick and moved into first. But Qi, in attempting to match Kushnir, tried way too hard of a trick and crashed hard. Morris, probably violating some sort of men's aerial decorum but unable to help himself, yelped with joy when Qi fell: He knew he'd just won himself a medal. Then Jia, doing a slightly easier trick, fell too, and suddenly, Morris, who'd finished eighth in the round which qualified eight and fourth in the round that qualified four had himself a silver medal. He didn't finish first, but the demonstrative Morris wept and danced and yelled like he had. It obviously didn't matter one bit to him.
Jia, whose score barely edged Qi's to finish with the bronze, had a little more disappointment, but only for a second: He grinned broadly when he stepped to the podium for the post-race flower ceremony. He had his medal. They all did.
In a sick irony, this sport's most tragic story involved one of its stars not being satisfied with finishing second. As detailed in a sad, moving piece by the Washington Post's Rick Maese, Vancouver silver medalist Jeret Peterson, who pulled off his signature "Hurricane" trick in those Games as seen in the above video, felt disappointed by the finish (judges penalized him for bending his knee upon landing), thinking that he was overshadowed by gold medalists in other sports at the Games. (The format for those games was more traditional, with two separate tries in each heat with the scores added together , than here in Sochi.) Life for Peterson, who had struggled with depression, spiraled out of control after the Games, and in July 2011, only a year-and-a-half after his greatest glory, he committed suicide. Peterson, as Maese describes, had all sorts of troubles independent of his sadness about finishing second, but you still want to scream that it didn't matter: That silver was enough for us. The medal is enough.
At the flower ceremony after the finish, the three winners stood at their podium. They were all beaming. Morris and Jia didn't look sad they didn't have gold. They looked gleeful to even be standing there at all. Meanwhile, Qi was nowhere to be found. At the Olympics, finishing third is fantastic. Finishing third is a lifetime reward.
* * *