Never mind the athletes . . . what happens to the medals?   

Updated: August 20, 2008, 11:25 AM ET

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When Olympians are stripped of their medals, we often hear countless stories of childhoods filled with strife and sacrifice, coaches who never saw or suspected anything and, of course, we almost always hear about … the tainted supplement.

But what about the most coveted and respected part of this whole process? What about the medal itself? Where do the medals go when athletes are "stripped"? How do they get there? And what happens to them in the end?

Ara Abrahamian

P Photo/Ed Wray

Ara Abrahamian argued a disputed penalty in his semifinal wrestling loss last week. Later, he had his bronze medal stripped when he protested during the medal ceremony.

Last week, Swedish wrestler Ara Abrahamian was stripped of his bronze after leaving the stand during the medal ceremony and dropping the medal on the mat in protest of a disputed call in his semifinal loss. The International Olympic Committee ruled that Abrahamian's actions violated the spirit of fair play and were "a political demonstration." The bronze medal is now in the hands of the IOC, where it will remain forever. Since Abrahamian's actions were not directly related to the competition, his medal has been permanently vacated, meaning that only Nazmi Avluca of Turkey is the bronze medalist in the Greco-Roman 84-kilogram category. Typically, there are two bronze winners in each weight class.

That's just one brief story of an Olympic medal. Others have much longer and more sordid tales to tell, such as five of the most defiled medals in Olympic history -- the three gold and two bronze medals formerly belonging to Marion Jones.

For every Olympic Games, the metals used to make the medals are mined in the host country. For the Sydney games, gold was mined from the historic Ophir gold fields and the Cadia Mine of New South Wales, with most of it being donated by mine operators and the rest coming from donations by local communities. The bronze medals Jones won were made from one- and two-cent Australian coins that were no longer in circulation. So, there's a chance thousands of Australians already have had their hands on a bronze medal.

The medals were designed by Polish sculptor Wojciech Pietranik, who used a design that incorporated traditional Olympic symbols on one side and famous Sydney landmarks on the back. The first of the five medals Jones would win made its big debut when it was placed around her neck on Sept. 23, 2000, when she won the 100-meter dash. From there, the medals traveled with Jones to talk shows and rallies upon her return to the U.S. as the conquering hero of the Sydney Games.

We all know what happened next: accusations, denials, BALCO, "Game of Shadows" and then the endgame. On Oct. 5, 2007, in a federal courtroom in White Plains, N.Y., Jones admitted under oath that she used steroids, lied about doing so and lied to federal investigators about a check-fraud case. The latter two transgressions ultimately earned Jones a six-month prison sentence.

Now, back to the medals.

Marion Jones

AP Photo/Jason DeCrow

Marion Jones had her five medals from Sydney stripped on Dec. 12, 2007. Less than a month later, she was sentenced to six months in prison.

In the aftermath of her guilty plea, the International Olympic Committee officially stripped Jones of all her Olympic medals and records on Dec. 12, 2007. In accordance with IOC policy, it is up to the national Olympic committee of the athlete in question to retrieve the medals. The return of the medals is still an act of fair play by the athlete because the IOC and its respective national Olympic committees have no legal jurisdiction to demand the return, said IOC spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau.

In fact, in recent history, only Hungarian hammer thrower Adrian Annus (whose pre- and post-Olympic drug tests in Athens showed signs that they were from two different people) refused to return his medal. After several months, Annus ultimately caved to local and international pressure and returned his gold medal. In Jones' case, the U.S. Olympic Committee and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency each sent a representative to Austin, Texas, to meet with Jones' attorney. The medals were handed over, and the representatives took the medals back to their headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. The medals were kept there in a safe briefly until they were hand-carried to the IOC by an IOC member from the U.S., said USOC spokeswoman Lisa Ramsperger.

While the return of Jones' medals evokes the image of a suitcase attached to its carrier via handcuffs, an IOC representative said that not all medals are returned with such formality. Others are simply mailed back. So the people of Hungary and other nations can feel a little glory, knowing that at some point their credit card bill may have been sitting on an Olympic medal in some random post office.

Today, Jones' medals remain in a vault in the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, said Moreau. This is the same vault that houses the men's basketball silver medals from the 1972 Games in Munich that Team USA still refuses to accept. While in most cases the IOC does its best to act quickly to present the medals to the rightful winners, the BALCO case and its influence on the 2000 Games forced the IOC to impanel a disciplinary commission to investigate any athlete who might end up winning a medal as a result of the Jones decision. Take the 100 meters, for example. Technically, Greek sprinter Katerina Thanou should move up to the gold, but her doping-plagued history and wacky withdrawal from the 2004 Games in Athens (Thanou and her training partner Konstantinos Kenteris skipped a drug test before the Opening Ceremonies, claiming they were in a motorcycle accident that was allegedly staged) have put her status in question. So until the IOC clears this up, Jones' medals sit on a shelf in Switzerland, said Moreau.

When the IOC does determine the rightful owners of Jones' medals, the new owners will be presented with the exact medals that Jones had all those years. The IOC does not commission replacements in these cases, and it rarely rolls out the red carpet when forced to re-award a medal.

Ben Johnson

AP Photo/Dieter Endlicher

Ben Johnson enjoyed his moment in the spotlight in Seoul before testing positive for steroids.

In 1988 in Seoul, Canada's Ben Johnson raised his finger in the air when he beat USA's Carl Lewis in the 100-meter final to win the gold … only to have it taken away two days later after a failed drug test. The IOC then awarded the gold to Lewis, but with nowhere near the same fanfare. While Johnson was humiliated, he still had that moment atop the medal stand on international television as the Canadian flag was raised and his national anthem was played. When Lewis was awarded the gold two days later, it was presented to him by International Amateur Athletic Federation president Primo Nebiolo in a private ceremony in an office under the grandstand of Olympic Stadium. That didn't matter to Lewis, who craved another gold medal after burying the one he won in the 100 at the 1984 Olympics in his father's coffin in 1987. "Don't worry," Lewis told his family at the funeral. "I'll win another one."

At times, the IOC, which usually leaves the re-awarding of medals to the national Olympic committees, will in fact give the green light to all the pomp and circumstance. The 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City were already marred by a corrupt bidding process that forced several IOC members to resign and, more visibly, a judging scandal in pairs figure skating in which French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne allegedly ignored a flawless program by the Canadian team of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier and instead favored the Russian tandem of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze in exchange for favorable scores for the French ice-dancing team.

With an international media spectacle on its hands, the IOC acted in a nearly unprecedented fashion. Not only did the IOC (with the blessing of the International Skating Federation) name Sale and Pelletier co-champions by awarding them gold medals, but it granted a second full medal ceremony at the Salt Lake Ice Center. In 1992, at the Barcelona Games, the IOC eventually granted a co-champion gold medal to Canada's Sylvie Frechette in synchronized swimming when her score was deemed incorrect due to a judging error (a typo by a Brazilian judge). The error wasn't corrected for 16 months until, after countless appeals and the support of the IOC, Frechette was presented the gold by IOC member Dick Pound in a ceremony in her hometown of Montreal in December 1993. It was a great example of righting a wrong, but not as grand as what we saw in Salt Lake City. The Canadian team of Sale and Pelletier and the Russian duo of Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze stood atop the podium in front of a crowd of 15,165 while both flags were raised and both national anthems were played. The bronze-winning Chinese team of Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo refused to participate in the second ceremony, calling it a media circus.

The future will undoubtedly bring us countless more tales of sobbing Olympic athletes -- some crying while their national anthems are played during the medal ceremonies, others on the courthouse steps while they confess to cheating. At the root of it all is the coveted Olympic medal, which has a thousand stories of its own.

Mike Philbrick is an editor for Page 2. You can reach him at


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