Q: NAME THE one thing at the Olympics that sucks worse than a French figure skating judge.
A: Fourth place.
Finishing fourth at the Olympics is like getting 100,000 shares of Enron or being the next person in line after the free beer runs out. As Mark Twain would say, it's the difference between lightning and lightning bug.
Win a medal in Salt Lake City, and you're treated like a returning astronaut. The medal gets hung around your neck by, say, the king of Sweden. You toss flowers to salivating women, kick it with Bob Costas on the NBC set and tingle at the Medals Plaza, where 20,000 people roar every time you doff your beret. The rest of your life is just walking past smiling bouncers into the coolest parties and having the words "Olympic medalist" follow your name.
Fourth place? Never heard of you.
No medal, no press conference, no check from your country's Olympic committee, no endorsements, nada, bubkes, zilch. Medalists get the Waldorf Astoria. Fourth place gets a leaky hotel room in Altoona with gymnastic honeymooners next door.
Fourth place is Polish snowboarder Jagna Marczulajtis, who was racing for a bronze in parallel snowboarding last week when she lost an edge halfway down and fell. Weeping, she moaned, "Fourth place is the worst place on earth. You are so close to being there, you can taste it."
Fourth place is U.S. bobsled driver Brian Shimer, who has competed in five Olympics and never won a medal. He lost the bronze in 1998 by .02 of a second. Two-hundredths of a second. You can lose that much time to a stubborn snowflake on the track, a wobbly spike on a shoe, the head wind from a butterfly's burp. "I still think about it today," said Shimer, who finished ninth in the two-man event on Sunday, "but I've learned there's more to life than bobsled."
Yeah? Like what?
Fourth place is Canadian swimmer Marianne Limpert touching the wall a minuscule .12 of a second out of a bronze at the Sydney Games and sobbing, "Fourth place feels like last.... Maybe some press-on nails would've made the difference."