Adam Nelson received his Olympic gold medal in the food court at Atlanta’s airport. Now, let’s give him – and all other clean athletes – the recognition they deserve.
As more startling revelations came out Friday in the Russian doping scandal and an almost daily lineup of cheating athletes are nabbed through improved testing methods, the International Olympic Committee needs to send a symbolic but powerful message that it will honour those who do things the right way. No matter how long it takes.
Starting with the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang and the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, the IOC should hold official medal ceremonies for those athletes who were cheated out of their glory because competitors were taking performance-enhancing drugs.
We’re talking about actual ceremonies, in the arena or stadium where their sport is being held, complete with a podium and flowers and flags and national anthems, with thousands of fans cheering them on and billions from around the world watching on television.
For Nelson, that would mean awarding him a gold medal in Tokyo that he actually won in the shot put 16 years earlier, on the fields of Ancient Olympia at the 2004 Athens Games.
It won’t begin to make up for what he lost. But it’s a good start.
“Anything they could do to recognize the athletes that were robbed of the moment would certainly go a long way toward repairing some of the damage that was done,” Nelson said when reached by phone, not long after the release of a sickening report further detailing systematic doping in Russia that involved more than 1,000 athletes across more than 30 sports.
The IOC has taken baby steps to address this enormous stain on fair competition, most notably storing the doping samples it takes at each Olympics so they can be tested up to 10 years later using enhanced techniques that weren’t available at the time.
Nelson is one of those who benefited, but he’s hardly alone.
So far, a total of 88 athletes from the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2012 London Games have turned up positive when further testing was conducted – more than half of them medalists, including five gold medalists. The IOC says ominously that many more positive tests are still expected from the retesting of those 4-year-old samples.
All of this has led to a massive re-writing of the official results, and a redistribution of medals to athletes who were clean. They deserve even more.
Think of those who initially finished outside the top three. They were denied a chance to step onto the podium, have a medal hung around their neck by a dignitary, watch proudly as their country’s flag was raised above the arena. Those who received a belated gold lost out on the playing of their national anthem, a ritual that often brings tears to even the biggest stars.
All of this is easily rectified. Bring them to the next Olympics.
The IOC has no firm rules governing exactly how athletes should be awarded their reassigned medals. It leaves that up to the national Olympic committees, recommending that they invite dignitaries and the media and play the Olympic anthem.
Four Belgium women who were bumped up to gold in a 2008 track and field relay after the Russian runner tested positive got a rousing ceremony and standing ovation from a 40,000-strong crowd during a meet in Brussels three months ago.
For others, the medal handover wasn’t nearly so glamorous.
Nelson settled for silver at the 2004 Athens Olympics , only to learn more than eight years later than the competitor who beat him, Yuriy Bilonog of the Ukraine, had been caught doping by a later round of testing.
The IOC asked Nelson to return his silver medal before he received the gold. Rightfully skeptical, he refused to give up what he had until he got what was rightfully his. Finally, in what sounds like a hostage exchange, an arrangement was made in July 2013 with the U.S. Olympic Committee.
“I got a call from the USOC that one of their representatives was returning from a trip to the IOC, that he had the gold medal and was passing through Atlanta,” said Nelson, who lives about an hour away in Athens (the Georgia version, interestingly enough). “So I drove down to the airport and we met at the food court. … I sat down at a table and he sat on the other side. He asked me, ‘Did you bring the silver medal?’ I said, ‘Yes. Have you got the gold medal?’ We put them down on the table and slid them across to each other. That was pretty much it.”
When asked if he would be willing to go to Tokyo in almost four years for the sort of ceremony he missed out on in Greece, Nelson said, “You know, I think so, if that’s something they put on the table and they’re really serious about doing it … especially if it doesn’t interfere with the current athletes competing. I don’t want to have that stuff detract from the current athletes.”
It wouldn’t detract at all.
If anything, such a ceremony would send a message to all athletes that the IOC is fully committed to a fair, level playing field. We can’t imagine that any medalist who does things the right way would be opposed to sharing the spotlight with someone who received this sort of delayed justice.
Of course, there are other issues the IOC desperately needs to address, including some sort of compensation package for athletes who suffered financial losses because of doping. Until then, let’s at least give them the medal ceremony they earned.
“It sends a message,” Nelson said, “that we value the efforts of those athletes who were robbed of their moment.”