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Brandon Veale column: May the fourth not be with you

It's time to recognize all the poor souls who landed in the Olympics' ultimate "booby prize": Fourth place.

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Brandon Veale
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Last week during the swimming competition, Lilly King, never one to self-censor, made her take on the somewhat tepid reaction the American public gives for silver and bronze medalists at the Olympics.

"Pardon my French, but the fact that we're not able to celebrate silver and bronze is bull----," she said.

At the time of this writing, the United States has a total of 80 medals, including 32 silvers and 23 bronzes. The Chinese have 10 fewer medals, but seven more golds. Ironically, the United States is just about the only location in the world in which the Olympic medal table is typically rendered by total medals first as opposed to gold medals.

Medal counts don't matter for anything anyway. There's nothing American trap shooters can do to make the judokas any better, nor does any country get an extra prize for winning the most medals. In fact, the Olympic medal table is right up there in sports meaninglessness with first-ballot Hall of Fame selections and distance from which NFL kickers were making practice attempts from a tee at halftime.

If we're counting first, second and third, we really ought to be counting that most ignominious of Olympic positions: the dreaded fourth place.

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There's no room on the medal stand for the fourth-place finisher. Your country's flag goes back into storage, and you don't even get a copy of the home game as a parting gift. However, you do get a diploma, which the Olympics hands out to fourth- through eighth-place finishers. A 2014 New York Times article on the diplomas noted that many people who are eligible to receive them never do or don't think too much about it.

In a rare and shocking example of Olympic boxing administrators doing something right, it is impossible to finish fourth in an Olympic boxing tournament. Both defeated semifinalists receive bronze medals, because even in 1972 when that policy was instituted, folks realized losing fighters should probably not go out there again a couple days later.

As I write, we've netted 23 fourths in Tokyo. I know this because I had to count them out one by one and write them down. It's easy to find lists of first-, second-, and third-place finishers by country. Fourth requires one to do one's own research, and since we have deadlines, I kept it to Americans from 1984 to the present.

The fourth-place club contains several great lights of Olympic and sports history, including Michael Phelps (2012, men's 400 individual medley), Tim Howard, Brad Friedel and Landon Donovan (2000 men's soccer); Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Giambi and Jason Varitek (1992 baseball), Mary Lou Retton (1984, women's balance beam) and NBC Olympic gymnastics commentator Tim Daggett (1984, men's high bar).

Retton, of course, was already the women's all-around champion when she joined the club, and Daggett won a gold in the team competition. Phelps had 20 medals in his back pocket at that point.

The fellow on my list I feel worst for is cyclist Taylor Phinney. At London 2012, Phinney finished fourth in the road race on the wheel of bronze medalist Alexander Kristoff of Norway. Four days later, he competed in the time trial and finished fourth again (this time by 51 seconds). Adding insult to injury, BOTH of Phinney's parents are Olympic medalists from 1984. Father Davis earned a bronze in the team time trial and mother Connie won gold in a photo finish in the women's road race. Connie also made the Winter Games in 1972 as a 14-year-old speedskater.

The only American who has multiple fourths in the Games so far is Edina-born swimmer Michael Andrew. Andrew was part of the 4x100 medley relay team that won gold in world-record time, so that medal probably makes a better consolation prize than the diploma.

Collin Morikawa joined the club last weekend. He made it to the last two of a seven-man playoff for the bronze medal in the men's golf tournament, but on the fourth playoff hole, Morikawa's approach shot was short and buried in the face of a greenside bunker, which helped hand the medal to C.T. Pan of Chinese Taipei. Morikawa did win the Open Championship a couple weeks ago, though, so he probably got over it before the plane home landed.

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Daniel Cormier made his Olympic debut in Athens in 2004 in the 96-kilogram weight class. He entered the knockout round undefeated, but lost to Russia's Khadzhimurat Gatsalov in the semifinals and Alireza Heidari of Iran to finish in the dreaded fourth.

Given his prowess, it's not surprising that Cormier made the 2008 Olympic team, too, but team doctors sent him home from Beijing after he was diagnosed with major kidney problems caused by excessive weight cutting.

Cormier had a happy ending. He went on to be one of the most prominent mixed martial arts fighters of the 2010s, winning the UFC's heavyweight and light heavyweight championships.

But for others, both on my list and from Olympiads and countries I didn't have time to dig up, spare a thought for them.

Olympic founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin said, "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well," but for some who almost conquered, fighting well might not feel like much of a consolation prize.

Brandon Veale is presentation editor of the News Tribune and would love to have finished fourth at the Olympics.

Related Topics: TOKYO OLYMPICS
Brandon has been sports editor of the News Tribune since August 2021.
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