Get Your Hands Off My Medal!

How to take gold from an athlete.

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Mr. Montgomery, the IAAF called. They want their medals back.

Sprinter Tim Montgomery announced his retirement on Thursday, a few days after he received a two-year ban from competition for steroid use. The International Association of Athletics Federations, the body that governs track and field, has revoked Montgomery’s World Championship medals and several million dollars in prize money. How do you make an athlete give his medals back?

You ask for them. When the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that Montgomery had cheated, the IAAF sent him a request for the medals. If he complies, the IAAF will put them in storage and press a new set for the runners-up. But no one will go after Montgomery if he ignores the request. At worst, he’d have his two-year suspension extended—which isn’t a big deal for a retiree. IAAF officials say their requests are ignored about half the time.

Runners-up also have to send in their medals, since they’re due for upgrades. (Here, the recovery rate is nearly 100 percent.) They’ll get new ones no matter what the winner decides to do with his. The IAAF would have to make new medals anyway, since each one is engraved with the name of the winning athlete.

Revoked Olympic medals, on the other hand, can be reused, since they’re fairly generic. (All the medals for a given year’s Games have the same design.) When the International Olympic Committee strips an athlete of her gold, it can send that same medal to the woman who had received the silver. If the IOC can’t get its hands on the original medal, it can either send an extra medal that went unused during the Games, or it can have a new one cast from the original die.

When the IOC disqualifies an athlete, it asks sports officials from that athlete’s country to obtain the medal. In the last few months, the IOC demanded that the U.S. Olympic committee retrieve a gold medal from runner Jerome Young, who had been caught doping twice. Since Young has already been banned from competition for life, he has little incentive to give up his gold. His agent has pledged to fight the request in court, where he says he’ll present the medal to the jury “on a gold platter, with velvet.”

In general, it’s easier to get an Olympic medal back when the Games are still going on. A Canadian official took a gold medal from sprinter Ben Johnson during a late-night visit to his hotel room in Seoul. During the Munich Games in 1972, the American swimmer Rick DeMont was disqualified for taking an asthma medication with ephedrine. But terrorists attacked the Israeli team a few days later, and no one bothered to collect DeMont’s medal. (He later sent it back from California to avoid a long-term suspension.)

There’s no set rule for what happens after an Olympic athlete returns his medal. The IOC decided not to give DeMont’s gold to the runner-up; Australian Brad Cooper kept his silver, and the top spot remained vacant. In 1912, the American athlete Jim Thorpe lost his gold medals after officials ruled that he was not an amateur. (He’d earned a few bucks playing minor league baseball.) A gentlemanly runner-up didn’t agree with the decision and refused to trade in his silver.

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Explainer thanks Robert Barney of the University of Western Ontario.