"There's a huge difference in third place and fourth place;" said James Carter, a former Olympic hurdler from Baltimore. "I always tell people that an Olympic bronze medal will open a lot of doors that fourth won't."
It is a fact that is acknowledged, mostly out of the spotlight, around these Games. When British swimmer Stephanie Proud pulled herself from the pool in a semifinal earlier this week, she sobbed as a BBC reporter approached for a live interview. She had finished ninth, one spot out of an opportunity to swim the final.
"Ninth," she cried, "is so hard."
The announcer patted her on the shoulder, offering consolation. "Fourth, though, is the worst," she said.
"Yes," Proud said, perking up. "Fourth is probably worse."
And so many know it. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Carter was a brash 22-year-old, relatively new to the international track scene. Now, he is a 34-year-old IBM employee in North Carolina, coaching some track on the side. In between, he learned the lessons so many in London are learning now: The work, so much work, might not pay off.
"Before my first Olympics, I knew I was one of the elite in the world," Carter said. "But how elite?"
In a way, that's what the Olympics amount to, sorting the already elite into sub-categories. In the 400-meter hurdles in Sydney, Carter ran a personal-best time, but was fourth, 23 hundredths of a second behind the bronze medal winner.
"At that point, I said 'Okay, I'm one of the best in the world; I can compete with these guys,'" Carter said. "My confidence level went up."
Athletes who have been in Carter's position at a young age, when there are more Olympics ahead, said they can react that way. On Saturday, Laura Bennett competed in the Olympic triathlon in and around some of London's most spectacular landmarks. It was a competition informed by her experience four years ago in Beijing, her first Olympics. There, the bronze medal was up for grabs. There, Bennett finished fourth.