Some bow gracefully to the inevitable as they approach the finish line; others grimace with fury and frustration. Some go home happy simply to have taken part; others wonder why they wasted four years of blood, sweat, and tears.
They are the losers, or at least the thousands who will not win a medal at the Athens Olympic Games, to be forgotten as the cameras focus on the victory podium. And how they face defeat could be crucial to their future success, say sports psychologists.
"In a lot of ways, athletes take a lack of success as a bereavement," says Jim Bauman, one of the psychologists helping the US team in Athens. "They have to go through a grieving process."
But with the right approach, adds Andrew Walton, who advised the British Olympic team in 1984, "Losing itself is a valuable experience."
Obviously, the top athletes go to Athens intent on winning. But they can only do so, says Mr. Bauman, armed with a sense of perspective. "We try to stay away from talking about winning and losing," he explains, "because if you don't win you are automatically a loser, and things aren't that black and white in sports.... The key question is, 'Are you satisfied with your performance?'"
The sporting world was not always so forgiving. At the ancient Olympics, record keepers did not even write down the names of athletes who placed second and third. Pindar, the 5th-century BC Greek poet, praising a victorious wrestler, wrote that the men he'd vanquished "slunk along the side roads, away from their rivals, downcast by their misfortune."
That is certainly not the case for Catherine Arlove, an Australian judo player who placed fourth in the under 70 kilogram class last week. The day after she lost her last fight, she was busy deleting dozens of congratulatory text messages on her cellphone, making space for the hundreds more pouring in from family and friends. "It's quite nice actually, and it helps because I am still really disappointed," she says.
Fourth place means out of the medals and record books. But it was still more than Ms. Arlove had expected. "I had only one expectation of myself," she says, "to compete at my best on the day. And I did that."
But she adds, "I never expected the empty feeling I have now, that there might have been more."
Like any athlete, Arlove had been beaten before. What mattered most each time, she says, was how she had lost. "If you fight your guts out and are beaten by someone who's better, you deal with it," she explains. "The worst losses are the ones where you don't compete because you [performed] below your best. Those losses take a long time to go away."
Some losses are particularly hard to take because of the circumstances. British swimmer Sarah Price, for example, was in tears after finishing last in her 100-meter backstroke semifinal: just before the race she had dived into the warmup pool and gashed her leg badly on an underwater camera.
Other losses come with consolation. Robina Muqimyar, the first Afghan woman to compete in an Olympics, set a national record even though she finished second to last in her 100-meter heat. She might as well have won a gold.
"I didn't have the Afghan flag with me at the moment, otherwise I would have been running with it around the stadium," she said after the race. "Even if I were 18 meters in back of the others, I would have been very grateful and very happy, because I have been in the Olympic Games."
However you lose, "Balance in life is really important," says Arlove, who cycles and enjoys photography when she is not on the judo mat. "A lot of athletes are so unidimensional in their sport, it is harder to cope with loss because so much is riding on it."
Balance, says Mr. Walton, helps sportsmen and women achieve the goal inscribed in Rudyard Kipling's words above the entrance to Wimbledon: to "meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same."
Cathy Arlove has taken that injunction to heart. Today she is still smarting with defeat, but as she scrolled through the messages on her phone, she was philosophical.
"The empty feeling will subside in a week or so," she says, "and then I will relish the opportunity I had and be as pleased as everyone else is."