How it feels when Olympians receive medals after doping cheats are caught

"A win for clean sport" as athletes are given reallocated medals in ceremonies. Share their emotion in the new Olympic Channel documentary 'Take the Podium'.
By Ken Browne

Lidia Valentin, Nobuharu Asahara, Steven Holcomb, Betty Heidler, Austra Skujyte, Christine Girard.

These are just some of the Olympians who have been reallocated medals which were awarded to athletes later found to be doping.

For most, it's an emotional journey.

Sometimes it can take years, but there is now a formal process in place after the approval of the Olympic Medal Reallocation Principles in May 2018 by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Using state-of-the-art testing techniques on athletes' stored samples from Olympic Games dating back to Beijing 2008, cheaters are being found out with their medals going to clean athletes.

Over 1,500 retested samples from Beijing and London 2012 have resulted in more than a hundred athletes sanctioned, with medals going to the real winners.

Since May 2018, 28 athletes have had confirmation of their reallocated medals with all of these scheduled to be presented in ceremonies before the end of 2019.

But what does it feel like for the Olympians awarded medals sometimes years after the event?

To find out, Olympic Channel followed those who were reallocated medals in this brand new documentary series 'Take the Podium'.

Dopers uncovered

New technologies and methodologies that were not available at past Olympic Games are uncovering banned substance use retrospectively.

Those found guilty are disqualified and asked to hand their medals back, for reallocation to the clean athletes who had produced a top-three performance.

“I can only imagine the disappointment of athletes who have had their special moment taken away due to cheating.”

Those were the words of two-time Olympic champion and IOC member Kirsty Coventry when the new process was announced in 2018.

"I'm finally the Olympic champion"

At London 2012 Spanish weightlifter Lidia Valentin came out of the lift zone in tears.

She had failed to make the podium in the women’s -75kg category, finishing fourth, just one kilo from a medal place.

But when samples were re-analysed all three athletes who were on the podium ahead of her that day were found to be using banned substances.

Svetlana Podobedova of Kazakstan, Russian lifter Natalya Zabolotnaya, and Belarus' Iryna Kulesha were all stripped of their medals after their samples were re-analysed.

In February 2019 - six-and-a-half years later - Valentin finally felt what it meant to be Olympic champion.

Surrounded by family, the 34-year-old received her gold medal at a ceremony organised by the Spanish Olympic Committee in Madrid.

"I'm finally the Olympic champion. I'm so excited. I still can't believe it. It is one of the happiest days of my life." - Lydia Valentin to Olympic Channel

“I wasn’t able to enjoy being on the podium at the time but the important thing is that the cheaters have been caught,” Valentin said.

Your celebration, your ceremony, your medal

Valentin was surrounded by family and friends at an official ceremony after the new protocols were brought in.

Athletes now have six choices as to how they wish to celebrate their special moment.

  1. The next Olympic Games
  2. The Youth Olympic Games
  3. The IOC headquarters or Olympic Museum
  4. At a National Olympic Committee function
  5. At an International Federation event or function
  6. A private ceremony

But not everyone had that opportunity in the past.

Adam Nelson, the American shot-putter was presented with silver at Athens 2004, but elevated to gold after Ukraine's Yuriy Bilonoh's control sample tested positive.

A decade later, Nelson was unceremoniously handed his medal outside a burger restaurant in the food court at Atlanta Airport.

He went back to work, and threw that precious metal in a random drawer, red with rage.

“Anything they could do to recognise the athletes that were robbed of the moment would certainly go a long way toward repairing some of the damage that was done,” Nelson told Associated Press in 2016.

Then there was Jared Tallent - the Australian race walker who went viral after he held a mock medal celebration in his back garden.

Russia's Sergey Kirdyapkin was stripped of 50km gold at London 2012 for doping with Tallent receiving the medal in June 2016.

Joy for Japanese and Brazilian sprinters after 11 years

One of the most exhilarating moments at Beijing 2008 was when Team USA dropped the baton and Jamaica streaked away to shatter the world record in the men's 4x100m relay clocking 37.10 sec.

It was Usain Bolt's third gold medal of the Games but he later had to hand it back as Jamaica were disqualified due to a doping infraction committed by Nesta Carter.

On the flip side, the Japanese team - who had celebrated bronze as if it were gold in Beijing - were upgraded to silver medallists.

Eleven years after the race, Nobuharu Asahara, Shingo Suetsugu, Shinji Takahira, and Naoki Tsukahara received their new medals at the IAAF World Relays in Yokohama in May 2019 and soaked up the applause of the home crowd.

"We are grateful to share this wonderful moment," the team told Olympic Channel, "from today, we will live as silver medalists, and as silver medalists, we will continue our legacy as honorable athletes."

"There are cheats, there are athletes who dope, but they were stripped of their medals and the medal reallocation is a victory for fairness in sport, for clean sport."

Nobuharu Asahara, Shingo Suetsugu, Shinji Takahira and Naoki Tsukahara of Japan receive their Beijing 4x100m relay silver medals at the 2019 IAAF World Relays in Yokohama.

Brazil's 4x100m relay team were awarded bronze due to Jamaica's disqualification.

They chose to receive the medals at the IOC Museum in Lausanne, doing so at the end of October 2019.

It was an emotional occasion with Bruno de Barros, aka Bruno Lins, shedding tears during the ceremony.

'Sad, angry, and happy at the same time'

For most, receiving a medal retroactively causes a mix of emotions.

Four-time Olympian Betty Heidler made her Olympic debut at Athens 2004, and put years of work, time, sweat, and sacrifice into her sport.

Eight years later at London 2012, the German hammer thrower stepped proudly onto an Olympic podium for the first time, receiving bronze, but it should have been even more momentous.

Heidler was later promoted to silver after 'winner' Tatyana Lysenko of Russia was disqualified for doping by the IOC in 2016.

Poland's Anita Wlodarczyk, the original silver medallist, was awarded gold and successfully defended her title in Rio.

But for Heidler it was a contradictory feeling to receive the silver medal almost three years after the event.

"When I found out that I will get a silver medal, I was sad, angry, and happy at the same time. But mostly I was relieved that this competition ends in a fair way." - Betty Heidler

"I sincerely hope that a further improvement in the fight against doping will make late re-allocations unnecessary. As much as I am happy today, I can't get that moment of 2012 back."

"Years of sadness"

In December 2018, heptathlete Austra Skujyte finally received her heptathlon bronze medal from London 2012.

Jessica Ennis was at the height of her gold-medal winning powers in 2012, but Athens 2004 silver medallist Skujyte was devastated after finishing fifth despite a personal best score.

The Lithuanian was the only woman to clear 1.92m in the high jump and her 17.31m in the shot put is still the best throw in heptathlon history.

"There were two years of sadness when I could not even talk about the London Olympics" - Austra Skujyte

But when both Russia's Tatyana Chernova, who took bronze, and Ukrainian Lyudmyla Yosypenko, originally fourth, were later sanctioned for doping violations later, Skujyte became the bronze medallist.

Skujyte, who retired from athletics in 2018, was presented with her medal by Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis at the Lithuanian Sports Awards.

What is the process?

The process isn't easy, or quick.

Between retests, appeals, and repeated calls for disqualified athletes to return their medals, it can take several years.

There are six steps as set out below in the medal reallocation process.

Medal Reallocation Process

To confirm an Anti-Doping Rule Violation can take up to two years alone.

But of course, the process needs to be thorough and exhaustive.

The point of the re-analysis programme is that the samples are re-analysed inside the window of eight years (10 years from Rio 2016 onward) when or if more sophisticated detection methods (scientific progress) or relevant intelligence (information on possible violations) become available.

When the athlete is informed of a medal reallocation in their favour, there are a few more steps to go still.

The athlete receiving the medal must also have their control sample retested to confirm that they were not doping at the time either, and this stage can also last up to a full year.

The aim for the IOC is to streamline the process, and there are signs this is possible.

Norway’s mixed doubles curling team of Kristin Skaslien and Magnus Nedregotten were awarded a reallocated bronze at PyeongChang 2018 days after Russia's Aleksandr Krushelnitckii and Anastasia Bryzgalova were disqualified for doping.

Norway mixed doubles curlers Kristin Skaslien and Magnus Nedregotten with their reallocated bronze medals at PyeongChang 2018

Coventry presented the medals at that ceremony and cited that experience as part of her drive to formalise the medal reallocation process.

But for those who missed out on receiving their medal immediately after their performance, that moment at the Olympics can never be replaced.

Athletes denied by dopers often miss out on recognition, plus financial support and sponsorship deals which can allow them to focus fully on training without having to worry about money to pay the bills.

In many cases, Olympic medals can be life-changing.

Pilot Steven Holcomb, Curtis Tomasevicz, Steven Langton and Christopher Fogt of the United States celebrate their final run in the 'night train' at Sochi 2014 on February 23, 2014. (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

"Cheats cost us that moment"

One reallocation announcement which was particularly poignant were silver medals for USA men's bobsleigh teams from Sochi 2014.

Vancouver 2010 gold medal-winning pilot Steven Holcomb passed away unexpectedly in 2017 at the age of 37, and in March 2019 it was announced that his four-man crew, and the USA two-man bob team would receive silver.

Russia’s Alexander Zubkov was stripped of his two golds by the IOC in 2017 but had appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Those appeals took two years to conclude.

“It’s unfortunate that our results were not official in February of 2014 and that we’ve had to endure the long process to see justice finally served,” said Holcomb's team-mates Chris Fogt, Steve Langton, and Curtis Tomasevicz.

Great Britain's four-man bob team was promoted to bronze after Zubkov's punshment.

Pilot John Jackson said, "Disappointingly, it is a medal we should have received on an Olympic podium in 2014. Cheats have cost us that moment, along with other nations too."

Team GB pilot John Jackson celebrates during the four-man bob competition at Sochi 2014

"A win for clean sport"

Canadian weightlifter Christine Girard received two medals in the reallocation process.

Eight years after finishing fourth in the -63kg competition at Beijing 2008, original silver medallist Irina Nekrassova's positive retest saw her promoted to bronze.

And her bronze at London 2012 was upgraded to Canada's first Olympic weightlifting gold in April 2018 when Kazakh lifter Maya Maneza (who had been awarded gold) and Russia's Svetlana Tsarukaeva (silver) were found to have used banned substances after retesting stored samples.

In December 2018, three years after her retirement, Girard received both medals with her three young children contributing to the cutest photo yet at a medal reallocation ceremony.

"This gold medal is a testament to clean sport. It means even more to me now, than had I heard O Canada played that day in London." - Christine Girard

Canadian weightlifter Christine Girard poses with her reallocated Olympic medals with her three children

Girard, now 34, spoke in favour of the new IOC principles awarding a ceremony to any athlete who wanted one:

“I think it’s really important to have a big ceremony. The more we talk about the positive, the better it could be for future athletes.”

She also had warm words for Team Canada and the clean culture she experienced as an athlete:

''Overall, I have to thank my country because years ago our country decided to believe in clean sport and put everything in place to make that happen and I grew up in a country, even doing weightlifting and I never got offered any drugs or anything and I think we have to be proud of that.

"I've been tested since I was 14 years old. We have clean athletes. We are good on an international level because we know how to work hard.''

Take the Podium

The original series 'Take the Podium' will be available to watch subscription-free on and the Olympic Channel apps for mobile and connected tv devices from 6th November 2019.