LONDON -- The essence of sport, the reason it is so endlessly compelling, is that someone wins and someone loses. Well, except at the 2002 Major League Baseball All-Star Game.
This isn't a big deal during a regular season when you play up to 162 games and the reaction to victory or defeat is virtually the same: Say a couple clichés to the media, fill up on the postgame spread and then come back for the next day's game. The stakes are heightened and the disparity between winning and losing more dramatic in competitions in which opportunities come along once every four years.
Which brings us to Monday's men's synchronized 10-meter platform diving competition.
Diving is not a competition many Americans mark on their calendars, let alone draft athletes for fantasy leagues (and no, Greg Louganis would no longer be a wise first-round pick). Entering Monday, the U.S. men had not medaled in the sport since the 1996 Olympics, though Nick McCrory and David Boudia were hoping to change that.
But the event was a very big deal in England, where 18-year-old Tom Daley has been a household name since he competed in the Beijing Olympics at 14. In that short time, he has experienced highs (he modeled in Vogue magazine with Kate Moss) and the lowest of lows (he lost his father to brain cancer last year), but through all of that he has remained very good at his sport.
So the British hopes were high for a medal, especially after Daley and partner Peter Waterfield were ranked first halfway through the six-dive competition with 203.88 points, their highest score ever at the halfway point. A gold-medal upset over the Chinese was looking very possible.
But then, the two destroyed their chances with a fourth dive that was so bad even a baseball writer could tell it was disastrous before the judges posted their scores. Daley kicked early and went short. Waterfield kicked too high and rotated too far. They fell from first to last.
Which is when things got very interesting for the Americans, because that terrible dive left McCrory and Boudia in third place with a medal tantalizingly within reach.
"It's almost harder to continue hitting dives when another team opens the door because you can see it. You say, 'Wow, I can medal,'" McCrory said. "That happened to us in the 2011 championships. Russia missed a dive and Germany missed a dive right after. We had a silver medal in the palm of our hands and I lost sight of the dive we were on. I was thinking of being on the podium, and we ended up fifth because I missed my dive.
"I learned a lot from that for this competition. It's hard to stay focused, but I made my mistake [in 2011] and I wasn't going to make it twice."
The two have been diving together only a short time but have been in the sport much of their lives. McCrory has been diving from 10 meters since he was too young to be afraid of such a height, while Boudia can vividly recall the days when he was so overcome with fear his mother had to bribe him with CDs.
"No sane person is going to go on a three-story building and say they're going to throw a couple flips off it," Boudia said. "But it got to the point where if I wanted to go to the Olympics, I had to take this journey and conquer this fear and get moving."
Feeling relaxed and comfortable -- they laughed and fist-bumped -- the pair started well Monday and got stronger as the event went on. In third place after their sixth dive, Boudia and McCrory retreated to the locker room to wait for the final British dive. They donned blue USA shirts to wear for a medal ceremony rather than the white shirts they would wear home if the Britons somehow dove past them for third place with a phenomenal score.
"That was the longest 10 seconds ever, just waiting for their scores to come up," McCrory said. "That was more stressful than when we were up there diving ourselves. It was intense and we were staying positive, but it was still hard to watch that and have that uncertainty."
Daley and Waterfield dove and their score was posted. It was good (91.80), but not nearly good enough. Boudia and McCrory had the bronze medal, the first by male American divers in 16 years (China and Mexico took gold and silver). Daley and Waterfield were fourth.
"Obviously, you don't look at someone's dreams getting crushed and go, 'Yeah!'" Boudia said. "But it was a cool triumph for Nick and I, and a cool win for U.S. diving. The moment was incredible."
"David and I gave each other a big hug," McCrory said, "and we had a moment where we were like, 'Wow, we just won an Olympic medal.'"
A Michael Phelps-worthy crush of British media crowded Daley and Waterfield in the interview area to ask what went wrong, how they had screwed up, how they had lost.
"In this level of competition, against this field, you can't afford to miss any dives," Daley said. "And we missed that dive."
"Fourth is the worst place to finish at the Olympics," Waterfield said. "I would rather finish last because at least then we would have missed every dive."
Daley and Waterfield talked about bouncing back in the individual diving, then left. The British mob of reporters exited as well to file reports on the Justin Bieber of English sport. The Chinese champs came through the mixed zone and, some time later, so did Boudia and McCrory, proudly wearing their bronze medals around their necks.
"I feel like it really hasn't sunk in that I won an Olympic medal just now," McCrory said.
Well, there is plenty of time for that. This is not a 162-game baseball season. At the Olympics, the feeling of victory and defeat lasts at least four years, if not lifetimes.