Take American gymnast Aly Raisman. In the women's all-around competition, she tallied a score of 59.566, the exact total accumulated by Russia's Aliya Mustafina.
"I was hoping they'd give us both the bronze," Raisman said.
Alas, a rarely invoked rule — in which the lowest score for each competitor is dropped — broke the tie. Mustafina took bronze. Raisman finished fourth, a result she called "definitely upsetting."
But by that point, Raisman was already an American heroine, one of the gymnasts who helped the U.S. to the team gold. Others aren't as fortunate. When Carter, the hurdler who was fourth in 2000, arrived in Athens four years later, he was a better, more focused athlete who had run the fastest time in the world that year. He went with one intention: win gold. The reality?
"To this day," Carter said. "I can't explain the final."
After 300 meters, he led. And then, his body shut down. Felix Sanchez of the Dominican Republic passed him. And then, after the penultimate hurdle, two others passed as well.
"I'm like, 'Oh God. I'm in fourth place again," Carter said. "When people say the word 'devastated,' I think that's the word that fits the most. I'm like, 'Fourth place again? Do I really want to run track any more?'"
Carter did not speak to anyone that night. Instead, he walked aimlessly around the Olympic Village, miserable. But he continued his career, and though he didn't make the 2008 Olympics, he won a silver at the 2005 world championships. He is retired, but he is among the best Americans ever in his event.
"The real world is a whole lot different," he said.
Lorig, now 38, said she is not yet ready for the real world. In Beijing, she was fifth. Here, she was fourth. She will aim again for 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
"Maybe this will give me more confidence for the next time," she said. "I don't know. I'm old enough. I'm so experienced. And I'm so close."
But when she travels home, her luggage will be no heavier. A medal, the bit of tangible evidence of success for the outside world, was so close. And now it is four more years away.