The Psychology of 4th Place

“How much it must suck to come 4th at the Olympics!”… “All that hard work for nothing!”… “My heart aches for (insert athlete) getting 4th”… “It must be the worst feeling”… “Coming 4th is worse than dead last”. These are recent and common spectator comments you may have heard, thought yourself, and can read if you just take a scroll through a Twitter search for example.

On the other hand when an athlete seems overly upset or inconsolable over a 4th place finish in the media, one may feel like shouting back, “Why are you so upset?!! You just placed 4th (or even 5th, 6th etc.) AT THE OLYMPICS!!”

I remember watching one of my favourite Canadian athletes that I looked up to in my event at the time, the 1500m, run at the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. It was Leah Pells and she finished 4th, half a second shy of a bronze medal. She ran an amazing race. She recently wrote a book on her life up to that moment, called “It’s not about the medal”. It is definitely worth the read to understand the full meaning of all her accomplishments on the track. The first chapter of the book starts with the following quote about that 1500m final race in Atlanta,

“I was thinking I could get 8th. Then, I thought I could get 7th, then 6th, 5th, 4th… and by the time I realized I could get 3rd it was too late. I had run out of track. Some people I’ve talked to have been saying, ‘You were so close to a medal. Too bad’. Those people don’t really know me. They don’t know where I’ve been or come from.” (Leah Pells, Tri City News, August 1996)

A recent CBC article came out titled, “Canadians felt heartbreak of Olympic ‘tin medal’ with the byline, “Fourth is probably the worst place”. One online comment in response to the article stated, “This story is only newsworthy if there is context added.” When it comes to understanding the context and subsequent psychology of “winning” fourth place or “losing” a medal I couldn’t agree more.

As Leah Pells stated regarding the 4th place sympathizers, “Those people don’t really know me.” If one is to judge an athlete or team’s 4th place performance as full of heartbreak or somewhere towards the other end of the emotional spectrum: complete joy and ecstasy, you must first understand it within the context of the entire season and years leading up to that point. Was the athlete a clear favourite or one of many contenders? In sports like swimming the field is so deep that being a fraction of a second off can be the difference between 1st and 8th. Perceived clear favourites  can miss the podium by having just a slightly off day. A season’s best or personal best at the Olympic Games is always something to celebrate but a “choke” can be unfairly assumed without knowing all those contextual factors; the health status, the athlete’s full story of the journey there or even accounting for many luck factors, which are a much bigger factor in some sports than others (think BMX) that go into performing on the day!

And in speaking of sports that involve some luck, our Canadian mountain biker, two time World Champion (2011 and 2015), Catharine Pendrel recently wrote a blog reflecting on her Olympic experience and her Bronze medal. You can read it here. Catharine writes about her personal growth as an athlete through Beijing and London. In Rio, she was caught up in a crash right off the start line, had her shifting stop working for part of the race, and crashed again in the final lap. Those are some of the luck aspects of mountain biking. On the other hand, she was ready to respond and fight back through all of them from everything she’d learned and experienced as an athlete at that point.

In summing up her Olympic race she writes, “I LOVE my Bronze. To me it is Gold. I got everything I wanted out of that performance. It was far from perfect, but it was magic. I rode the race of my life and got exactly out of my performance what I wanted most, a ride that I could be proud of.”

And perhaps that is what needs to be celebrated more often. Attention, media recognition and Olympian status certainly create a large perceived gap between the meaning of a Bronze and 4th place. When we finish on the flip side and feel like we’ve missed out on a dream result (and for some the financial payoffs) by so little, of course there will be mixed emotions, and when any competitive athletes tastes “victory” so close, they will always think about what could have been, continue to strive for more, and hopefully come back even more motivated. In that same mountain bike race, our other Canadian rider Emily Batty finished 4th, and 2 seconds behind Catharine. I hope she can now feel more pride than defeat, and celebrate her effort, race execution and say that was the best ride she could put out on the day. And when you can say that, there is no shame in coming 4th at the Olympics.


Photo credit: Tyler Anderson



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