Armstrong Stripped of Olympic Medal, Sets Precedent for IOC to Revisit 1976

Commentary by Jeff Commings

PHOENIX, Arizona, January 17. TODAY will be a day that Lance Armstrong will never forget.

In addition to the first part of his much-anticipated interview with Oprah Winfrey airing tonight, The Associated Press is reporting that Armstrong must return the bronze medal he won in the road time trial at the 2000 Olympics.

It's the final accomplishment that had been left untouched on Armstrong's resume in the wake of doping allegations against Armstrong in the past six months. The International Olympic Committee called for Armstrong to give up the medal back in December, but gave him 21 days to appeal. Wednesday was the final day for Armstrong to issue an appeal, and the IOC responded to Armstrong's non-response with a letter on Wednesday requesting a return of the medal. Armstrong had given up his fight to clear his name last fall, essentially saying any decisions made against him would not get an appeal.

It's only a coincidence that the IOC's call for the medal the day before Armstrong's interview with Winfrey airs on the Oprah Winfrey Network, according to the AP article. The interview airs in two parts and reportedly will feature Armstrong admitting to doping.

Instead of awarding Armstrong's bronze medal to fourth-place finisher Abraham Olano Manzano, the IOC will not have a third-place finisher in its official records. Gold medalist Vyacheslav Ekimov of Russia and silver medalist Jan Ullrich of Germany are retaining their medals.

Today's news finally opens the doors for the IOC to look into past Olympics that featured athletes who later admitted to doping but have been able to keep their Olympic medals. The IOC has stood firm on not prosecuting athletes who admit to doping more than eight years after their last Olympic appearance, and that has given a reprieve to the East German women who were so dominant at the 1976 Olympics under a haze of steroid use. But that reprieve should no longer exist.

Since Armstrong's medal was awarded in 2000, the IOC has now reached past its eight-year statute of limitations, and should not say Armstrong's case was a “one-time thing” because he is such a major public figure. The door has been opened, and the IOC must keep walking through it. My colleague Shoshanna Rutemiller mentioned the need for the IOC to disregard the statute of limitations in an article published last November, also pointing to the 1976 Games as the first target for the IOC.

The 1976 Olympics was the East German playground in the pool, with the women taking 11 of the 13 events. Only the women's 200 breast and the women's 400 free relay were out of the East German reach, with that American win in the relay standing as one of the top Olympic performances across all sports in history.

As the East German systematic doping helped the Communist country clean up in the pool, Shirley Babashoff of the United States was the biggest victim, winning three silver medals. At the time, she was dubbed “Surly Shirley” for speaking out against the East Germans when no proof of doping existed at the time. In the wake of the release of the Stasi files in the mid-1990s that was published in Swimming World Magazine, no action was taken against any East German who fell under the umbrella of the doping regime, including those who admitted to knowing they were being injected with steroids.

If the IOC were to consider stripping the East Germans from 1976 of their medals, they may do what they did in Armstrong's case and not bump people up in the standings. But we would all know that the vacant spot in the gold medal field in the results would belong to folks such as Babashoff, who has called for sports organizations to officially acknowledge the anguish of the athletes and possibly award a commemorative medal.

And while they're at it, why not look at the 1988 Olympics? That was the last gasp for the East German doping regime before the Iron Curtain fell, and 10 gold medals were handed to women who were doped. The “heroine” of the Olympics, six-time winner Kristin Otto, later admitted to knowing she was injecting performance-enhancing drugs, and was never punished. The IOC would do well to clean up the results of that meet as well.

The sport of swimming is lucky that a doping scandal has not reached the magnitude of what the cycling community is experiencing. I'm not sure we could take the pain of having to redo every major meet result, or watch one of our sport's greatest athletes sit in front of Oprah Winfrey and finally let loose about being a cheater.

Full text of Associated press article