Two-hundredths of a second.

A mere moment, the blink of an eye.Once again, .02 seconds is the difference between a long-awaited American bobsled Olympic medal and four more years of futility, which will total 46 years by the time the 2002 Salt Lake City Games roll around.

Despite clocking the fastest times for five-sixths of Saturday's third and final run at The Spiral track, USA I - the four-man sled driven by four-time Olympian Brian Shimer - tailed off down the stretch and finished .02 seconds from sharing a bronze medal.

"I did not put three perfect runs together," said Shimer. "If I did, we would have won a medal . . . My team did a great job at the start, but I let them down."

Germany II, piloted by Christoph Langen, grabbed the gold with a three-run aggregate time of two minutes, 39.41 seconds, while the silver went to the Marcel Rohner-led Switzerland I with a time of 2:40.01. And tying for the bronze with identical times of 2:40.06 were Great Britain I, driven by Sean Olsson, and France I, guided by Bruno Mingeon.

Shimer's crew clocked in at 2:40.08. It was the second time in 10 years that a margin of .02 seconds kept an American foursome from a bronze, with the U.S. suffering a similar fate at the 1988 Calgary Games.

What makes the fifth-place finish even more frustration to Shimer and Co. is that they set the push-start record and track record by winning the World Cup race at the same Spiral less than a year ago.

"Things run so smoother in the years prior (to the Olympics), but it seems like every Olympic Games we seem to have a lot of distractions," said Shimer, who had complained of constantly changing weather and his crew's challenges with colder, snowy conditions. "But it's no excuse. I have the experience to get through all of that."

Shimer's USA I was ranked fourth after Friday's sole heat, with the day's second heat canceled because of heavy rains. Olympic officials opted not to try and make up the lost heat, with Saturday's two heats resulting in the first three-run Olympic competition in recent memory.

With a strong run and other squads faltering, USA I moved into a three-way tie for third following Saturday afternoon's first heat - the second overall heat of the event. Langen had driven the Germans to the top two times up to that point with a 1:45.60 two-run aggregate, while Rohner's Swiss crew jumped from eighth to second at 1:46.28, leaving Shimer tied with Olsson and Swiss II's Christian Reich with identical 1:46.35 times.

With the top 15 sleds running in reverse-rank order for the third and final run, Mingeon's France I posted the heat's top time at 53.63 seconds. Reich's Swiss II couldn't match the three-run mark, but Olsson's Great Britain I tied Mingeon's three-heat total with a third run of 53.71.

With Shimer, Rohner and Langen left to guide their sleds, USA I reeled off the heat's best push start - where many races are won or lost - with a time of 4.91 seconds. After the push segment, the Americans were clocked with the heat's top time through intervals No. 1 through 4 - several times nearly a quarter of a second ahead of the time to beat and earn a medal.

But Shimer's sled slowed down the last interval, going from top gun to also-ran with a fourth-place finish in the heat at 53.73. The slow-at-the-finish malady plagued USA I each of the three heats, with the Americans running among the top three in the heat, only to finish the final interval of the Spiral with the heat's fourth-best time.

"Of the three runs, this definitely was my best run," Shimer said. "You get to the bottom and you know you've done everything you can and it's not good enough.

"In my heart, I know I did the best I could," added Shimer, who at the end of his third run first threw his helmet in frustration and then threw up his arms in anguish. "I had problems at the bottom."

All Shimer and crewmates Chip Minton, Randy Jones and Garreth Hines could do was watch and hope the final two medal-contending sleds would falter. They didn't, as Rohner's identical 53.73 time moved Swiss I ahead of the British-French tandem and eliminating USA I.

And even though Langen's crew managed just the eighth-best time in the third heat, they still had a large enough lead to win the goal by more than a half-second's margin.

USA II, driven by Jim Herberich, finished 12th in the event, which seems to be a Winter Olympics competition for all comers, such as Jamaica (21st), Australia (23rd), Bosnia and Herzegovina (25th), the Virgin Islands (29th), Ireland (30th), Greece (31st) and Puerto Rico (disqualified on third heat).