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4 Times Olympians Refused Their Medals

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South Korean fencer Shin A-Lam provided one of the indelible images of the 2012 London Olympics when she staged an hour-long, tearful protest after losing to Germany’s Britta Heidemann in an individual epee semifinal match. Shin’s coach claimed Heidemann’s winning hit came after the final second on the clock, which was being controlled by a 15-year-old British volunteer, had elapsed. Shin was required to stay on the piste while the judges considered--and ultimately rejected--her appeal. After Shin lost the bronze-medal match, the International Fencing Federation offered her a special consolation medal, which she reportedly refused.

Here’s a look at a few other athletes who have turned down Olympic medals for various reasons.

1. U.S. Men’s Basketball Team, 1972

At the 1972 Munich Games, the United States met the Soviet Union in the men’s basketball final. The Americans trailed the far more experienced Soviets by five points at halftime and by 10 points with less than 10 minutes remaining, but mounted a furious rally and took a one-point lead on a pair of free throws by Illinois State guard Doug Collins with three seconds remaining. Then things got weird.

International rules prohibited a team from calling a timeout after a free throw, so the Soviets inbounded the ball. The Soviet coach and bench ran onto the court to demand a timeout and Bulgarian referee Artenik Arabadjan stopped the clock with one second remaining. Arabadjan denied the Soviets a timeout, but allowed them to re-inbound the ball. After the Soviets’ ensuing pass was deflected and the buzzer sounded, the Americans began to celebrate.

R. William Jones, the secretary general of the International Amateur Basketball Federation, approached the scorer’s table and ordered that the Soviets be awarded a timeout and three seconds be put back on the clock. Despite the fact that Jones didn’t have the authority to make such a demand, the referees complied. Aleksandr Belov caught a full-court pass on the third inbound attempt and converted the game-winning layup before the buzzer, giving the Soviets a 51-50 win.

After their protest was dismissed, the Americans decided to boycott the awards ceremony and refuse their silver medals. The 12 members of the U.S. team have received numerous invitations to accept their medals since then, but they have always declined, and the awards remain in a vault in Lausanne, Switzerland. U.S. team captain Kenny Davis and teammate Tom Henderson have provisions in their wills that none of their descendants ever accept a silver medal from the 1972 Games.

2. Ara Abrahamian, 2008

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Competing for Sweden at the Beijing Games, Ara Abrahamian lost his semifinal bout in Greco-Roman 84kg wrestling because of what he considered “blatant errors in judging.” Abrahamian had to be restrained from wrestling officials after the incident and initially refused to participate in the bronze-medal match before changing his mind. Abrahamian won the bronze, but removed the medal from his neck during the award ceremony, dropped it in the middle of the mat and walked away. The IOC disqualified Abrahamian for insulting the other athletes and the Olympic movement and stripped him of his medal.

3. Ibragim Samadov, 1992

After placing third in the 181-pound light-heavyweight category at the Barcelona Games on a technicality, Unified Team weightlifter Samadov threw his bronze medal on the ground and walked off the podium to boos. Samadov lifted a total of 814 pounds – the same number as gold medalist Pyrros Dimas of Greece and silver medalist Krzysztof Siemion of Poland – but was awarded the bronze because he weighed one-tenth of a pound more than his fellow medalists. “I don’t know why he did it,” Dimas said. “But I think this sort of incident kills the spirit of the Olympic Games.”

Samadov had been heckled by Greek fans when he failed in his final attempt to surpass 814 pounds and was reportedly upset when a Greek Olympic Committee member awarded him his bronze medal on the podium. After giving Samadov a chance to explain himself, the IOC ordered Samadov to leave the Olympic Village and stripped him of his medal.

4. Hugo Wieslander and F.R. Bie, 1912

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At the 1912 Stockholm Games, Native American Jim Thorpe (pictured) won the gold medal in the pentathlon and decathlon. Less than a year later, a newspaper reporter discovered that Thorpe had played professional baseball in 1909 and 1910, and therefore should have been ineligible to compete in the Olympics. Thorpe admitted that he had violated his amateur status and the IOC asked him to return his trophies and medals.

After removing Thorpe’s name from the record book, the IOC recognized Hugo Wieslander of Sweden, who finished second in the decathlon, and F.R. Bie of Norway, who was second in the pentathlon, as the rightful winners of each event. Both men refused to accept their gold medals. In 1982, the IOC decided to restore Thorpe’s gold medals, but the organization continues to recognize Bie and Wieslander as co-winners.

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Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
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olympics
The POW Olympics of World War II
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism

With the outbreak of World War II prompting a somber and divisive mood across the globe, it seemed impossible civility could be introduced in time for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan to be held.

So they weren’t. Neither were the 1944 Games, which were scheduled for London. But one Polish Prisoner of War camp was determined to keep the tradition alive. The Woldenberg Olympics were made up entirely of war captives who wanted—and needed—to feel a sense of camaraderie and normalcy in their most desperate hours.

In a 2004 NBC mini-documentary that aired during their broadcast of the Games, it was reported that Polish officers under German control in the Oflag II-C camp wanted to maintain their physical conditioning as a tribute to Polish athlete Janusz Kusocinski. Unlike another Polish POW camp that held unofficial Games under a veil of secrecy in 1940, the guards of Woldenberg allowed the ’44 event to proceed with the provision that no fencing, archery, javelin, or pole-vaulting competitions took place. (Perhaps the temptation to impale their captors would have proven too much for the men.)

Music, art, and sculptures were put on display. Detainees were also granted permission to make their own program and even commemorative postage stamps of the event courtesy of the camp’s homegrown “post office.” An Olympic flag was crafted out of spare bed sheets, which the German officers, in a show of contagious sportsman’s spirit, actually saluted.

The hand-made Olympic flag from Woldenberg.

Roughly 369 of the 7000 prisoners participated. Most of the men competed in multiple contests, which ranged from handball and basketball to chess. Boxing was included—but owing to the fragile state of prisoners, broken bones resulted in a premature end to the combat.

Almost simultaneously, another Polish POW camp in Gross Born (pop: 3000) was holding their own ceremony. Winners received medals made of cardboard. Both were Oflag sites, which were primarily for officers; it’s been speculated the Games were allowed because German forces had respect for prisoners who held military titles.

A gymnastics demonstration in the camp.

The grass-roots Olympics in both camps took place in July and August 1944. By January 1945, prisoners from each were evacuated. An unknown number perished during these “death marches,” but one of the flags remained in the possession of survivor Antoni Grzesik. The Lieutenant donated it to the Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism in 1974, where it joined a flag recovered from the 1940 Games. Both remain there today—symbols of a sporting life that kept hope alive for thousands of men who, for a brief time, could celebrate life instead of lamenting its loss.

Additional Sources: “The Olympic Idea Transcending War [PDF],” Olympic Review, 1996; “The Olympic Movement Remembered in the Polish Prisoner of War Camps in 1944 [PDF],” Journal of Olympic History, Spring 1995; "Olympics Behind Barbed Wire," Journal of Olympic History, March 2014.

 All images courtesy of Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism. 

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Big Questions
How Do You Steer a Bobsled?
 Quinn Rooney, Getty Images
Quinn Rooney, Getty Images

Now that the Olympics are well underway, you might have developed a few questions about the games' equipment. For example: How does one steer a bobsled? Let's take a crack at answering this pressing query.

How do you steer a bobsled?

Bobsled teams careen down an icy, curving track at up to 90 miles per hour, so steering is no small concern. Drivers steer their sleds just like you steered your childhood sleds—by manipulating a pair of ropes connected to the sled's steel runners. The driver also gets help from the rest of the crew members, who shift their weight to aid with the steering.

Why do speed skaters wear glasses?

speed-skating

Speed skaters can fly around the ice at upwards of 40 mph, so those sunglasses-type specs they wear aren't merely ornamental. At such high speeds, it's not very pleasant to have wind blowing in your eyes; it's particularly nightmarish if the breeze is drying out your contact lenses. On top of that, there's all sorts of ice and debris flying around on a speed skating track that could send you on a fast trip to the ophthalmologist.

Some skaters also say the glasses help them see the track. American skater Ryan Bedford recently told the Saginaw News that his tinted shades help him focus on the track and filter out distracting lights and camera flashes from the crowd.

What kind of heat are the biathletes packing?

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As you might guess, there are fairly strict rules governing what sort of rifles biathletes carry on the course. They are equipped with guns chambered for .22 LR ammunition. The gun must weigh at least 3.5 kilograms without its magazines and ammunition, and the rifle has to have a bolt action or a straight-pull bolt rather than firing automatically or semi-automatically.

Is a curling stone really made of stone?

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You bet it is, and it's not just any old stone, either. Curling enthusiasts swear by a very specific type of granite called ailsite that is only found on the Scottish island of Ailsa Craig. Ailsite supposedly absorbs less water than other types of stone, so they last longer than their competitors.

Ailsa Craig is now a wildlife sanctuary, so no new ailsite has been quarried since 2002. As a result, curling stones are incredibly expensive. Kays of Scotland, which has made the stones for every Olympics in which curling has been an official event, gets prices upwards of $1,500 per stone.

What about the brooms?

The earliest curling brooms were actual brooms made of wood with straw heads. Modern brooms, though, are a bit more technologically advanced. The handles are usually made of carbon fiber, and the heads can be made of synthetic materials or natural hair from horses or hogs. Synthetic materials tend to be more common now because they pull all of the debris off of the ice and don't drop the occasional stray bristle like a natural hair broom might.

What are the ski jumpers wearing?

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It may look like a ski jumper can pull on any old form-fitting bodysuit and hit the mountain, but things are a bit more complicated than that. Their suits have to be made of a spongy material and can't be thicker than five millimeters. Additionally, the suits must allow a certain amount of air to pass through them; jumpers wearing suits without sufficient air permeability are disqualified. (This rule keeps jumpers from wearing suits that could unfairly act as airfoils.) These rules are seriously enforced, too; Norwegian skier Sigurd Petterson found himself DQed at the 2006 Torino Games due to improper air permeability.

Those aren't the only concerns, though. In 2010, judges disqualified Italian jumper Roberto Dellasega because his suit was too baggy.

What's up with the short track speed skaters' gloves?

Gloves
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If you watch a bit of short track speed skating, the need for gloves quickly becomes apparent. When the skaters go to make passes or careen around a turn, they need the gloves to keep from cutting their hands due to incidental contact with other skaters' blades.

There's more to the gloves than just safety, though. Since the skaters' hands often touch the ice during turns, they need hard fingertip coverings that won't add friction and slow them down. The tips can be made of any material as long as it's hard and smooth, but you've got to give American skater Apolo Ohno some style points for the gold-tipped left glove he broke out in 2010.

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