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In praise of the fourth place

19 August 2016

Paul Vallely celebrates the heroism of the runners-up to the runners-up

I EXPECT they will put me on the psychiatrist’s couch for admitting it, but, when the medal-winners mount the Olympic podium, I find myself thinking about the person who came fourth. The public spotlight tends to fall on such individuals only when there is some allegation that one of the medal-winners has a track record of doping, as was the case last week for three British swimmers, their coach said. But I often think about those who come fourth, even in uncontroversial contests. What is it like to be runner-up to the runners-up?

Media attention focuses on the medal-winners. Even there, I must confess a certain perplexity. What makes some silver and bronze medallists disappointed, while others are clearly delighted? Greg Rutherford looked dejected after failing to win gold again; yet Jessica Ennis-Hill looked thrilled with her silver. You might have thought that, after achieving gold last time, and then putting themselves through the rigours of another four years’ intense preparation, anything less than champion status would feel a frustration.

Why, you might wonder, would an athlete who could end their career on a gold medal risk another throw of the dice? Ms Ennis-Hill, who this time had to fit her training around the care of her two-year-old son, offered an answer when she said: “I’m happy with my performance, and I enjoyed every moment of competing.”

Risk is in the nature of competition. Hyperbolic sports commentators kept talking about Usain Bolt’s being “unbeatable”, but the whole essence of contest is that even the most imperious performer can be bettered on the day. To compete is to pit yourself against the uncertainty of victory, as was shown by Mo Farah’s heart-stopping tumble in the 10,000 metres — although overcoming that additional adversity made the runner’s eventual victory all the sweeter.

Still, I found myself wondering about all those athletes who have for the past four years committed themselves to 5 a.m. starts in the pool or on the track, but failed to reap glittering public reward — and did not even come fourth.

Perhaps it is because I am not a sportsman. I go to the gym twice a week, cycle for a couple of hours, and occasionally swim. But there is nothing competitive about it, and contest is the difference between sport and mere exercise. There is a pleasure in the latter. (My yoga teacher used to talk about the sweet ache of sleeping flesh awakening.) Yet there is far more to sporting dedication than pleasure.

Someone from Max Whitlock’s gym was on the radio this week, celebrating the achievements of Britain’s first-ever Olympic champion gymnast. The gym is now brimming over with applicants, it was revealed. Some of them will just want to get fit. Others, though, inspired by the 23-year-old’s two gold medals, might well aspire to emulate his shining example.

Good luck to them. They will not be tempting me from a warm bed at 5 a.m. But if they work at it, perhaps they will come fourth — and earn the unspoken admiration of people like me, who see them as just as heroic as the champions — perhaps with more cause, because they have missed out by the smallest margin.


Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester.


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