4 Times Olympians Refused Their Medals

Hannah Peters/Getty Images
Hannah Peters/Getty Images

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

Getty Images

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

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.

The Time Baby Ruth Sued Babe Ruth

Allsport/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Allsport/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1920, the Curtiss Candy Company introduced the Baby Ruth candy bar, causing a certain baseball player with a very similar name to take notice. Babe Ruth was having a monstrous year—his 54 home runs in the 1920 season were more than any other team in the American League. If you were going to misappropriate someone’s name for a candy bar, Ruth’s was a logical choice.

Sensing opportunity, the Great Bambino struck back by creating his own Babe Ruth Home Run Bar. Curtiss quickly sued Ruth’s company for trademark infringement. But what happened next was surprising: When the Sultan of Swat accused the company of using his name, Curtiss feigned shock. Its bar was named after “Baby” Ruth Cleveland, daughter of President Grover Cleveland.

For years, this has been the oft-repeated explanation, but the argument makes no sense. Cleveland had been out of office for more than two decades and dead for 12 years when the bar debuted. “Baby” Ruth herself had died of diphtheria in 1904, at just 12 years old. Although the country’s most famous baseball star would seem much more likely to have a namesake candy than a former president's departed child, the courts sided with Curtiss.

When Ruth learned of the verdict, he bellowed, “Well, I ain’t eatin’ your damned candy bar anymore!” Somehow, the Baby Ruth bar survived without his support.

10 Winning Facts about Wheaties

General Mills
General Mills

Famous for its vivid orange boxes featuring star athletes and its classic "breakfast of champions" tagline, Wheaties might be the only cereal that's better known for its packaging than its taste. The whole wheat cereal has been around since the 1920s, becoming an icon not just of the breakfast aisle, but the sports and advertising worlds, too. Here are 10 winning facts about it.

1. IT WAS INVENTED BY ACCIDENT.

The Washburn Crosby Company wasn't initially in the cereal business. At the time, the Minnesota-based company—which became General Mills in 1928—primarily sold flour. But in 1921, the story goes, a dietitian in Minneapolis spilled bran gruel on a hot stove. The bran hardened into crispy, delicious flakes, and a new cereal was born. In 1924, the Washburn Crosby Company began selling a version of the flakes as a boxed cereal it called Washburn's Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes. A year later, after a company-wide contest, the company changed the name to Wheaties.

2. ITS JINGLE FEATURED A SINGING UNDERTAKER AND A COURT BAILIFF.

Wheaties sales were slow at first, but the Washburn Crosby Company already had a built-in advertising platform: It owned the Minneapolis radio station WCCO. Starting on December 24, 1926, the station began airing a jingle for the cereal sung by a barbershop quartet called the Wheaties Quartet. The foursome sang "Have You Tried Wheaties" live over the radio every week, earning $15 (about $200 today) per performance. In addition to their weekly singing gig, the men of the Wheaties Quartet all also had day jobs: One was an undertaker, one was a court bailiff, one worked in the grain industry, and one worked in printing. The ad campaign eventually went national, helping boost Wheaties sales across the country and becoming an advertising legend.

3. WHEATIES HAS BEEN TIED TO SPORTS SINCE ALMOST THE BEGINNING.

Carl Lewis signs a Wheaties box with his image on it for a young boy.
Track and field Olympic medalist Carl Lewis
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Wheaties has aligned itself with the sports world since its early days. In 1927, Wheaties bought ad space at Minneapolis's Nicollet Park, home to a minor league baseball team called the Millers, and in 1933, the cereal brand started sponsoring the team's game-day radio broadcasts on WCCO. Eventually, Wheaties baseball broadcasts expanded to 95 different radio stations, covering teams all over the country and further cementing its association with the sport. Since then, generations of endorsements from athletes of all stripes have helped sell consumers on the idea that eating Wheaties can make them strong and successful just like their favorite players. The branding association has been so successful that appearing on a Wheaties box has itself become a symbol of athletic achievement.

4. WHEATIES HELPED KICK-START RONALD REAGAN'S ACTING CAREER.

In the 1930s, a young sports broadcaster named Ronald Reagan was working at a radio station in Des Moines, Iowa, narrating Wheaties-sponsored Chicago Cubs and White Sox games. As part of this job, Reagan went to California to visit the Cubs' spring training camp in 1937. While he was there, he also did a screen test at Warner Bros. The studio ended up offering him a seven-year contract, and later that year, he appeared in his first starring role as a radio commentator in Love Is On The Air.

5. ATHLETES' PHOTOS DIDN'T ALWAYS APPEAR ON THE FRONT OF BOXES.

Three Wheaties boxes featuring Michael Phelps
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Although a Wheaties box wouldn't seem complete without an athlete's photo on it today, the cereal didn't always feature athletes front and center. In the early years, the boxes had photos of athletes like baseball legend Lou Gehrig (the first celebrity to be featured, in 1934) on the back or side panels of boxes. Athletes didn't start to appear on the front of the box until 1958, when the cereal featured Olympic pole vaulter Bob Richards.

6. THE FIRST WOMAN ON A WHEATIES BOX WAS A PILOT.

Former Track and Field Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersey stands with a poster of her new Wheaties box after it was unveiled in 2004.
Former Track and Field Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersey stands with a poster of her new Wheaties box after it was unveiled in 2004.
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton became the first woman to appear on the front of a Wheaties box in 1984, but women did appear elsewhere on the box in the brand's early years. The first was pioneering aviator and stunt pilot Elinor Smith. Smith, whose picture graced the back of the box in 1934, set numerous world aviation records for endurance and altitude in the 1920s and 1930s.

7. IT USED TO HAVE A MASCOT.

Though we now associate Wheaties with athletes rather than an animal mascot, the cereal did have the latter during the 1950s. In an attempt to appeal to children, Wheaties adopted a puppet lion named Champy (short for "Champion") as the brand's mascot. Champy and his puppet friends sang about the benefits of Wheaties in commercials that ran during The Mickey Mouse Club, and kids could order their own Champy hand puppets for 50 cents (less than $5 today) if they mailed in Wheaties box tops.

8. MICHAEL JORDAN IS THE WHEATIES KING.

Of all the athletes who have graced the cover of a Wheaties box, basketball superstar Michael Jordan takes the cake for most appearances. He's been featured on the box 18 times, both alone and with the Chicago Bulls. He also served as a spokesperson for the cereal, appearing in numerous Wheaties commercials in the '80s and '90s.

9. FANS ONCE GOT THE CHANCE TO PICK A WHEATIES STAR.

MMA star Anthony Pettis on the front of a Wheaties box.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The public hasn't often gotten a chance to weigh in on who will appear on the Wheaties box. But in 2014, Wheaties customers got to decide for the first time which athlete would be featured nationally. Called the Wheaties NEXT Challenge, the contest allowed people to vote for the next Wheaties Champion by logging their workouts on an app platform called MapMyFitness. Every workout of 30 minutes or more counted as one vote. Participants could choose between Paralympic sprinter Blake Leeper, motocross rider Ryan Dungey, mixed-martial-artist Anthony Pettis, lacrosse player Rob Pannell, or soccer player Christen Press. Pettis won, becoming the first MMA fighter to appear on the box in early 2015.

10. THERE WERE SEVERAL SPINOFFS THAT DIDN'T CATCH ON.

Three different Wheaties boxes featuring Tiger Woods sitting together on a table
Tiger Woods's Wheaties covers, 1998
Getty Images

Faced with declining sales, Wheaties introduced several spinoff cereals during the 1990s and early 2000s, including Honey Frosted Wheaties, Crispy Wheaties 'n Raisins, and Wheaties Energy Crunch. None of them sold very well, and they were all discontinued after a few years. The brand kept trying to expand its offerings, though. In 2009, General Mills introduced Wheaties Fuel, a version of the cereal it claimed was more tailored to men's dietary needs. Wheaties Fuel had more vitamin E and—unlike the original—no folic acid, which is commonly associated with women's prenatal supplements. Men didn't love Wheaties Fuel, though, and it was eventually discontinued too. Now, only the original "breakfast of champions" remains.

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