SYDNEY, Australia - After he received the third degree, James Carter came in fourth at the Olympics.
Carter does not want to be known as the man who taunted other competitors at the 2000 Games, but as the fourth-best 400-meter hurdler in the world.
He was able to make that claim last night after he continued an improbable climb with a finish one place shy of a medal. The Baltimorean ran the fastest race of his career, which consists of three years in one of track and field's most demanding events.
"One year ago, I was a nobody," Carter said. "Now, I'm the fourth-best person in the world. A lot of people didn't think I could do this, but I knew what I was capable of doing."
The gold medal went to U.S. teammate Angelo Taylor, a 21-year-old who ran splendidly in Lane 1. At last year's world championships in Spain, Taylor blundered, mistakenly thinking the first three finishers in the semifinals automatically advanced. Carter's youthful error came in Monday's semifinals, when he had a big lead and turned to taunt the men behind him.
"I got the third degree from almost everybody I ran into," Carter said. "Veterans, young guys, coaches, people from different nations. That wasn't in the Olympic spirit. That was very immature. I'm a rookie, I'm going to make rookie mistakes, and that was one of them."
Running in front of another crowd of more than 100,000 at Olympic Stadium that included his mother, Marilyn Knight, and his coach at Mervo High, Freddie Hendricks, Carter was within one clipped hurdle of a medal.
Carter was booed after his semifinal. When the introductions were made last night and there wasn't a similar response, he was grateful.
He was the early leader, but Saudi Arabia's Hadi Souan Somayli came off the second turn in the lead. Somayli didn't surrender to Taylor until the final three meters. Somayli took the silver, and South Africa's Llewellyn Herbert reeled in a fading Carter 15 meters from the end for the bronze.
"I got out the way I wanted to," Carter said. "Three people had more going over that last hurdle than I did. I kind of overstrided No. 10, and that might have thrown me off a bit. I did my best, and it just wasn't good enough."
Carter didn't dabble in the event until he was a freshman at Hampton University. Two months ago, he had never run under 49 seconds, but he improved in three straight races at the U.S. trials. His time last night, 48.04 seconds, was more than four-tenths faster than he ran in the trials final to qualify for the Olympics.
He aimed to run under 47.90, but even that wouldn't have gotten a medal; Herbert came through in 47.81.
Johns Hopkins Ph.D. candidate Joanna Zeiger was jubilant when she finished fourth in the women's triathlon Sept. 16. Carter wasn't as thrilled with that place.
The top four finishers, none older than 23, established personal bests. The results unfold here on massive screens. Taylor's name was the first to appear, and he exulted. When Carter saw Herbert's flash up third, he became still and took a minute to survey the scene.
"I was trying to let it soak in," said Carter, who was asked about the pleasure of a fast time and the pain of finishing one place out of the medals. "I'm feeling a little bit of both. My goal was to be on the awards stand, but I ran a personal best, and I'm happy with that. I dreaded this position at the trials, but this is as high as you can go in sports, so fourth isn't that bad on this level."
Only the top three finishers at the U.S. trials go to the Olympics.
In the mixed zone, where athletes are mobbed for interviews, Carter was congratulated by Mamie Rallins, the head manager of the U.S. women's team. Once a world-record hurdler, she's now the women's coach at Hampton, and one of her assistants, Maurice Pierce, coached Carter by e-mail and telephone this month.
The city is only now constructing a track at Mervo. Carter suffered from myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease, and had his thymus removed when he was in the seventh grade. He got here without a strong support system, unlike the men he challenged.
Somayli was targeted as a prospect by the renowned HSI club in Los Angeles four years ago, and has prospered under its direction.
Taylor is the second straight Olympic champion in the event out of Georgia Tech, and the native of DeKalb, Ga., was obviously inspired by Derrick Adkins at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Carter? He just wanted to grow up and become Michael Johnson.
"Four years ago, I was waking up my mom so she would watch the Olympics on television," Carter said. "Now, she's in the stands watching me."