Paris (AP) — After a career of athletic success, Kim Gevaert regretted that her kids weren’t born when she was in her prime and didn’t see the sprinter make history at the Beijing Olympics. A consolation was that the children were on hand eight years later, when their mother’s history was finally put right.
Gevaert and her teammates from Belgium’s sprint relay squad in 2008 are among the first beneficiaries of what is quickly becoming the biggest rewriting of Olympic history. The story, for kids at least, is tricky to grasp, as Gevaert discovered when she tried explaining in September to her seven-, five- and three-year olds why a stern-looking man in a dark suit had just hung an Olympic gold medal around her neck, even though she retired years ago, in a packed Brussels stadium with an ecstatic crowd.
But really, it’s simple: Dozens of medals that drug cheats won in Beijing, and again four years later in London, are finding their way to rightful owners, Gevaert included, thanks to an International Olympic Committee crackdown on dopers who escaped detection in 2008 and 2012 but are now being caught by advances in the science of drug testing.
Taken out of storage and reanalyzed, urine samples from those games are now proving positive for anabolic steroids and other banned performance-enhancers that labs couldn’t spot at the time. So far, the nearly 1,400 retests have caught 98 athletes. Disqualifications started as a drip, with the IOC first announcing in June 2015 that open-water swimmer Olga Beresnyeva of Ukraine was being stripped of her seventh place in London because retests found she used the banned blood-booster EPO.
They have since swelled to a torrent. In the last four months, after reanalyzing their samples, the IOC has ordered 17 medal winners from Beijing — which has now lost more medalists to doping than any other games — and nine from London to hand back their golds, silvers and bronzes. More are expected to follow as the retesting continues and expands to samples from the 2014 Sochi Games, the IOC’s medical director, Richard Budgett, told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
“It’s both a wonderful story but a very sad story at the same time,” Budgett said. “Because those athletes who should have got medals have had to wait an incredibly long time.”
“At least, in the end, justice has been done,” he added. “It will be good for the deterrence of future cheaters.”
Those caught include Yulia Chermoshanskaya, the anchor runner for Russia in women’s sprint relay in Beijing. She and her teammates were stripped of gold after two anabolic steroids, stanozolol and turinabol, were found in Chermoshanskaya’s urine reanalyzed this year. Tests can now detect if athletes used the drugs weeks before competing. Previously, the detection window was mere days.
That bumped the silver medalists — Gevaert, Olivia Borlee, Hanna Marien and Elodie Ouedraogo — to first place. The first Belgian women ever to medal on an Olympic track will never know how they would have felt had they, not the Russians, stood on top of the podium in Beijing and heard their anthem play. But they got, albeit belatedly, the next best thing: a rousing ceremony and standing ovation at a track meet in Brussels’ King Baudouin Stadium on Sept. 9. Gevaert’s kids were in the 40,000-strong crowd and saw her and her teammates, all wearing golden tops, be driven around in an open-top vintage car and former IOC President Jacques Rogge hang the medals around their necks.
“They were able to be part of a very special moment in my career,” Gevaert, who retired shortly after Beijing, said.
“The stadium was full, the crowd was very enthusiastic,” she added. “They made it a fabulous occasion. Even after eight years, it was a magical moment.”
The reallocation of medals isn’t automatic. To make sure that they’re not handing medals from one doper to another, the IOC is also retesting the samples of athletes who are next in line. Dina Sazanovets, for example, placed fourth in her 69-kilogram weightlifting category in London but won’t get the bronze stripped from her Belarusian teammate Marina Shkermankova, because retests found steroids in both of their samples. The Belgian sprinters’ samples, on the other hand, were negative when retested, Pierre-Olivier Beckers-Vieujant, head of the Belgium Olympic Committee, said in a phone interview.
Even if retests find nothing, the IOC is not obliged to reward those further down, if it feels they are too compromised to deserve a medal. The women’s 1,500 meters in London looks particularly problematic. As fourth-place finisher, Tatyana Tomashova would theoretically be in line for bronze, after race winner Asli Cakir Alptekin forfeited gold for doping. But the Russian served a doping ban of two years and nine months before competing in London. For the moment, the IOC has not reallocated the medals and still lists Tomashova as fourth.
American Shannon Rowbury, who placed sixth, wonders whether she might end up among the medals and struggles to reply when people ask where she finished.
“It’s a really helpless feeling to just be sitting and waiting and, you know, hoping that justice will be served,” Rowbury said. “With London in particular, there are just so many question marks and so many ‘What ifs?'”
Once the IOC determines who gets what, it has guidelines but no firm rules governing exactly how athletes should be awarded their reassigned medals. It leaves the choice of ceremony up to national Olympic committees, recommending that they invite dignitaries and the media and play the Olympic anthem.
When Australian race walker Jared Tallent received his London gold, stripped from a Russian drug cheat, nearly four years late this June, he was given a choice of venues. He opted for Melbourne, because he grew up nearby, and the city’s Old Treasury Building, “because it’s a really nice place and I could have all my family and friends there. It was all televised on TV, a pretty special occasion.”
He first returned the silver.
“It was a weird feeling, giving that medal back. That was about a month before my medal ceremony, so I didn’t have an Olympic medal for a month until I got a gold replacement,” he said in a phone interview.
Irish walker Robert Heffernan, who got bumped up from fourth place in that race, received his bronze on Thursday in his hometown of Cork, regaled with a piper, plenty of pomp and a jubilant crowd that filled City Hall with cheers as the medal was finally hung around his neck. Heffernan delayed the ceremony until after competing at the Rio Games this August because he wanted to fully enjoy the occasion with family and friends after his four-year wait.
“It’s been a very long, drawn-out affair,” his manager, Derry McVeigh, said in a phone interview. “If you’re just focusing on this medal all the time, it can just take over your life.”
Beckers-Vieujant, the Belgium Olympic chief, traveled himself to Switzerland to pick up the golds for Gevaert and her teammates and drove them back, “in a very nice lacquered wooden box,” by car to Brussels. Not the original medals that the Russians got, these were drawn instead from an IOC stock of replacements.
“The IOC luckily still had a few gold medals left from Beijing,” he said.
He rushed them to an engraver, to mark that they were won for sprint relay, before the handover in the cheering stadium.
“It was a marvelous moment,” he said. “Unforgettable.”
“The sense of justice restored gave it additional warmth.”