For some athletes it takes many years to earn Olympic medals

In March last year the IOC (International Olympic Committee) decided to retroactively revoke the gold medal won by the Russian athlete Natalya Antyukh in the women’s 400 meters hurdles race at the 2012 London Olympics. Five months earlier Antyukh had been disqualified for doping by the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU), the independent body responsible for monitoring violations of the rules of conduct in athletics. The gold was awarded to the athlete who came second in the race, the American Lashinda Demus. However, a year after the IOC’s decision, Demus has still not received her medal.

Demus’ situation is similar to that of another athlete who was awarded gold several years after the London Olympics: the American Erik Kynard, who placed second in the high jump in 2012 and was named winner by the IOC only nine years later, following the disqualification for doping of the athlete who preceded him, the Russian Ivan Ukhov. Like Demus, Kynard has not yet come into possession of his Olympic medal.

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Cases like those of Demus and Kynard demonstrate the difficulties that international sports justice bodies encounter when they have to balance two needs. On the one hand, they must ensure that athletes accused of having taken doping substances during sports performances are stripped of their medals after a series of serious and thorough checks. On the other hand, it is necessary that these exams are carried out within a reasonable time, to allow the athletes who are to receive the medals to be rewarded and recognized as Olympic champions, a circumstance which would allow them to obtain sponsorships and cash prizes.

The trials involving doping cases, however, often last a very long time: it depends above all on the tests, which to be effective require that the athletes’ urine and blood samples be stored and analyzed several times – the journalist of New York Times Jeré Longman wrote that these analyzes can take a lot of time, even 10 years – and from the continuous appeals presented by athletes who are deprived of medals.

Demus and Kynard should be symbolically rewarded next summer, during the Paris Olympics. They have not been professional athletes for some time (they are 33 and 41 years old respectively), and the fact that they did not obtain medals when they were active in their respective disciplines has caused them both to miss out on significant economic opportunities.

In an interview given to New York Times, Kynard said that in the last twelve years, between the sponsorships and the prize money that would have been due to him as an Olympic champion, he could have earned at least 500 thousand dollars. Also for this reason, he defined the gold medal that will be awarded to him after 12 years as a “participation prize”.

In the cases of Demus and Kynard the award ceremony, albeit with a delay of twelve years, will take place during an official ceremony, but not all athletes who obtained a gold medal after a ruling from the IOC were rewarded in a dignified manner.

The most famous example is that of the American athlete Adam Nelson, who in 2012 was named winner of the shot put competition at the 2004 Athens Olympics after the disqualification of the Ukrainian Yurij Bilonoh for doping: he was awarded in the airport of Atlanta, in a Burger King restaurant. Nelson said that receiving the medal in such a place and not in Greece, the home of the Games, caused him “a sense of loss.”

According to US Olympic historian Bill Mallon, since 1968, when the IOC made drug testing mandatory, there have been 164 competitions in which medals were withdrawn or awarded to other athletes.

One of the most notable cases occurred in 2012, also at the London Olympics, when six of the top seven finishers in the men’s 94-kilogram weightlifting competition, including the top three finishers, were disqualified for doping. In the end the IOC awarded the gold medal to the fifth place finisher, the Iranian athlete Saeid Mohammadpour Karkaragh.

Another recently reassigned medal was that of mixed team ice skating at the 2022 Beijing Olympics: in January the ISU (International Skating Union, the association that organizes international ice skating competitions) revoked the medal to the Russian national team and assigned it to the United States, who came second on that occasion. However, the Russian Olympic Committee has filed several appeals against the ISU decision, which could further lengthen the time needed to reach a final ruling. If the appeals process concludes before the summer, athletes from the US team could be honored during the closing ceremony of the Paris Olympics.

2024-03-12 14:14:29
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