The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) announced a new plan this week: that at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, there would be official medal ceremonies to redistribute medals in any events where initial medalists were disqualified because of doping infractions.
Medals are usually awarded the day or night of the competition at Olympics and World Championships, but the laboratory processes for some doping tests and the notification and disciplinary machine can take longer than that to roll into gear. As a result, at recent Olympics, medals that had already been awarded have later been stripped from the initial winners after the test results go into force.
There are some official provisions to expedite the process. The Court of Arbitration for Sport has an Ad Hoc arm that works at Olympic Games and in the ten days before, trying to process cases as quickly as possible. But things still sometimes drag on.
And that means re-awarding the medals to the next athletes on the results sheet, possibly months or years down the line. When Beckie Scott, the Canadian cross-country skier, eventually received a gold medal in the pursuit at the 2002 Olympics, it was because the first- and second-place finishers had been kicked out for doping. Scott had initially placed third.
(And her journey to receiving that medal was long: it involved arguing that all of an athletes medals from a Games should be stripped if they are found to be doping during the Olympics).
When she finally received her gold medal, more than two years had passed and Scott stood on a podium in Vancouver, British Columbia, with her parents, not her fellow competitors. 500 people showed up. It wasn’t at an Olympic medal plaza.
“I can’t say that part hasn’t been fun,” she said in a news story at the time. “My first choice would have been to stand on the podium at the Olympic podium in Salt Lake City and accept the medal there.”
“I did witness Beckie Scott’s silver medal ceremony,” teammate Devon Kershaw wrote in an email. “They had a little podium for her. They called her up. She got her silver alone on a podium in a Canadian city – far from the 50-60,000 cheering fans of Salt Lake. Hell, it wasn’t even winter. Then, I saw it again some months later – but this time for the gold medal that was rightfully hers. Same deal. Alone on the podium. Canadian city. Some speeches. Only this time they played the national anthem of Canada and raised the flag.”
Sir Craig Reedie, the president of WADA and also the vice president of the International Olympic Committee, announced that for the first time new, complete medal ceremonies would be held after the Rio de Janeiro Summer Games in 2016 for athletes who were moved up the result sheet later due to doping infractions.
“We are going to make sure that, when the medals are re-awarded, they are presented properly,” Reedie said, according to the British newspaper The Guardian.
He emphasized that all winners should get their “moment in the sun.”
It’s unclear what that will entail logistically, or how long after the Games such medal ceremonies will be held, in the case that drug tests take so long that some athletes have already left the Games.
Canadian skier Kershaw, himself a three-time Olympian who has competed against athletes who were later banned for doping, echoes these questions.
“Are they going to gather the other medalists and ask them to a) travel to the location of the Olympics in question for said ceremony b) bring their medals with them c) dig out their Olympic clothing (the official prize ceremony clothing of course)?” he wrote. “I understand that the IOC would rather do this in a quicker time-line,” he wrote. “Something like a few days after the athlete-in-question fails the drug test, so the Games would still be going on and a lot of these problems outlined above would be easier to deal with.”
It’s clear that not all doping cases are resolved in a few days, though.
And, having won a World Championships medal himself, Kershaw doubts that any makeup ceremony – even if it was at the Games itself – could really replicate the energy and atmosphere of the first one.
“The reality is that when someone is cheated out of a medal at a championship like the Olympics, a ‘fake real thing’ will never be the same – not even close to the ‘actual’ real thing. The flags have already been raised. The anthems sung. The slow-mo replays with the real tears of emotion after the race played and re-played. Simply put – the ‘actual’ moment is forever done. A contrived ceremony at a later date is just that – official or not. Contrived.”
In other words, to use Reedie’s language: the sun just doesn’t shine as bright a few days later, much less a few years.
But other athletes seem to be enthusiastic.
“One of the best moments of winning was standing on the podium and hearing my national anthem play and seeing my flag raised,” Jamaican sprint World Champion Danielle Williams told the BBC, while noting that she hoped to never found herself in that situation. “So I could definitely understand that an athlete who didn’t get that chance would love it. I would support that.”
Since no further details have emerged about how the ceremonies would be executed, or if they would still be arranged for athletes like Beckie Scott who only receive their gold medals 2 years after the Games, it’s hard to say whether it’s a proposal to be considered seriously.
But it’s clear that the international sports community desperately needs to provide solutions after a doping scandal roiled the track and field community this summer, with implications that one in three medals awarded between 2001 and 2012 in endurance events at major championships went to athletes with suspicious blood profiles.
“Doping like no other issue hits athletes where it hurts: at their one shot at glory, at their own opportunity of a gold medal, and that is why we must continue to work together to protect clean athletes,” said WADA Director General David Howman at the 2015 International Athlete Forum for 2020 in Tokyo, Japan, at the beginning of the month.
While briefly touching on recent scandals only by noting that “doping is still king in terms of its importance as an ethics in sport issue,” Howman instead focused on promoting integrity in sport, noting the agency’s history since its creation in 1999 and attempting to shift the language from the negative phrase “war on doping” to a more positive one, “the protection of the clean athlete.”
He offered no specific plans, however, and Reedie’s proposal seemed no more tangible, either.
Whether the ceremonies become a real thing or not, Kershaw says that athletes should focus on what they can control, and make their own memories.
“I guess my opinion is this: if you are a racer – it better not be about the medal,” wrote the 2011 World Champion in the team sprint. “It better not be about the ceremony. The accolades, the adoration and the pomp and circumstance. Because if you get cheated out of a medal – you will be really, really, really crushed. Those ‘real’ moments are gone forever, never to be replicated or faked back into reality. But – the memories you have about that perfect race that YOU executed should remain.
“The medal is nice,” he continued. “The clapping fans too. The money does help of course – you can’t lie about that. But over the years the medal gets dusty. Your children barf on it. There’s a new champion on tv. You get a little fatter. You ski much slower and probably can’t fit into that race suit that your son now calls ‘old school’ and wears to spring series – racing in it as a ‘throw-back.’ You look back at your equipment that you used to win that medal and it looks hilariously ghetto. You even may ask yourself ‘how the hell did I even make it 1km on this garbage let alone 50?’ But – through it all, those memories above that you shared with your team, your country, your family, your friends and yourself remain. And you should pat yourself on the back at that moment, for that’s why you went through the journey in the first place.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.