Avoiding the number four in sport and culture at the Olympics


In Korean, the word for “four” sounds like “death.” For that reason, the number four is considered unlucky in many Asian cultures. It is much like the superstition of the number 13 in the United States. In PyeongChang, some Americans competed under the number four bib, and it didn’t go their way.

Mikaela Shiffrin wore the number four bib in the women’s slalom event. She was the reigning gold medalist, and it was considered her best event. She ended up finishing fourth in her favorite event.

Ben Ferguson had number four on when he competed in the men’s halfpipe. Despite having a high qualifying score, he was unable to find the podium in the final. He finished fourth.

Lindsey Jacobellis is arguably the best in women’s snowboard cross, but she has yet to win an Olympic gold medal. This year she finished fourth in the final after a fellow competitor fell, which could have cost her a spot on the podium.

Jacobellis remained upbeat after her finish.

"Fourth place is fourth place in the Olympics. It's the same girls I race against constantly, so that I'm still in the mix with these girls that are significantly younger than me is not really something to shake my head at.”

She added, "It is what it is, and I made the finals which is something I haven't done since (Torino) 2006 (Olympic Winter Games), so I was pretty excited about that."

Shiffrin, Ferguson and Jacobellis all wore the number four bib and ended up fourth overall. Finishing fourth on the podium is arguably one of the hardest places to end up. It’s quite an accomplishment to compete at the Olympics, but finishing fourth can feel like failure as it is just one spot off the podium.

Lara Gut had one of the most shocking fourth place finishes of the Games. She came in fourth by .12 seconds in the ladies’ super-G after Ester Ledecka shocked the world by winning the event from the 26th start spot. Gut had already taken the podium pictures as the bronze medalist.

"It hurts. On one side, I just have to think that one year ago, I crashed and I wasn't even able to move - my knee was just destroyed. But on the other side, you come to the finish in a race and it doesn't go the way you want it, and you have the feeling that everything is just for nothing and your entire world is disappearing. The day after, you just wake up again and start fighting again. It's just sport but it feels like your entire life."

Sweden’s Sebastian Samuelsson finished fourth in a race with 86 biathletes in the men’s 20km individual biathlon. He beat 82 other races but feels as though he’s really just the first loser.

"Fourth place is also first loser," Samuelsson said. "It was a good race, but of course I want to have a medal when I'm so close."

Shiffrin tried to stay positive after her fourth place finish in the slalom.

"I was fighting for the medal yesterday and I came out on the right side, and I was fighting today, although not really in the way that I wanted to, and I came on the wrong side,” Shiffrin said.

She added, "Somebody has to be in fourth place, it's ok."

Her teammate and veteran Lindsey Vonn summed it up perfectly after her slalom race: "At least I'm not fourth. I'm happier to be (sixth) than fourth."

Combine the anguish of finishing fourth with the superstition of the number four in Korean culture, athletes are leaving PyeongChang pondering how to avoid the number four, whether it’s a bib or a finish, in the future.