“To the victor go the spoils” is a well-known phrase first uttered by a New York Senator in 1831. Simply put, it means the winner gets the prize. But in the sports world determining a winner can be sometimes be challenging.
You would think that the person crossing the finish line first or the team scoring the most points is the winner, right, seems kind of a no brainer. They’re the ones that stand on top of the podium and receive the bouquet of flowers, get their medals, trophy, jacket or jersey and hear their national anthem played. Of course, they are the champions. That’s why we have competitions and why we have an award ceremony afterwards, so we can crown and celebrate the winners.
But unfortunately, things are not always what they seem, not quite that simple and straightforward. Determining a true winner can, in reality, take years, even decades to finalise.
Before a competition even starts boycotts, bans, restrictions and selection procedures determine who is allowed to compete, which in turn, could very likely affect the outcome and who wins.
After a competition and podium ceremony there can be appeals, protests, complaints, investigations, inquiries, hearings, reviews, proceedings and campaigns. There can be political and public pressure to overcome, gender verification tests to go through, drug testing results to analyse and then even more drug re-testing.
And sometimes there is no winner. Yes, that’s right; a competition where no one wins, no one comes first. But is that possible? Absolutely, just look at the Wikipedia page for The Tour De France List of Winners and you will find written in bold text “NO WINNER” written in the column marked “winner” seven times in a row from 1999 to 2005. The only other absence of a winner since 1903, when The Tour De France began, was during World War One and World War Twowhen there were no races.
But, unless I have completely lost my marbles, didn’t Lance Armstrong stand on top of the podium at the “podium ceremony” each of those years and wasn’t he crowned the winner seven times in row? So, while the race had ended the results were not permanent – for that we had to wait another dozen years.
In October 2012 the results were officially changed and Mr Armstrong was stripped of his wins, his titles, for over whelming evidence he had been doping all the years he won despite never having definitively been caught while competing. No other cyclist was moved up to become the new winner for any of those seven years – so Lance did not ultimately win and neither did anyone else.
Five months before Armstrong was officially relieved of his seven titles, Bjarne Riis, the 1996 Tour De France winner admitted taking EPO, a banned performance-enhancing drug, in that same year. But he did not lose his title and is still the “1996 Winner” because the statute of limitations of 10 years had expired.
Then we have Floyd Landis and Alberto Contador, the “podium winners” of the 2006 and 2010 Tour de France, who subsequently tested positive for taking performance enhancing drugs, and had their titles stripped from them and reallocated to Óscar Pereiro and Andy Schleck retroactively a year and change after their respective races had completed.
Earlier this year, on May 30, my good friend Adam Nelson, American shot putter, received the 2004 Olympic gold medal – almost nine years after he competed in Athens. The 2004 Olympic podium winner for this event was Yuriy Bilonoh of the Ukraine who held the title for eight and a half years until a urine sample of his, taken back in 2004, was retested using the newest, latest technology and came up positive for doping.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) made the finding public and announcement of the loss of his Olympic title on December 5, 2012 but Nelson, the 2004 podium Olympic Silver medallist in the men’s shot put, had to wait another six months to be get his gold medal and be officially crowned the 2004 Olympic Champion – nine years after the last shot put hit the dirt in the Athens competition.
Using banned performance enhancing drugs has to be the most common and publicised reason for results being changed.
There are, however, plenty of other reasons why results can be overturned, changed and athlete’s performances can be annulled or disqualified and positions, rankings and medals be reassigned or not. And it can happen a few hours after the award ceremony or decades later after athletes have retired or even died.
There are rules in every sport, there has to be, and when rules are broken the outcome, the results can change. But rules are constantly changing, being modified, being thrown out and new rules come in. But it is not just athletes that might try to ignore, bend, or break the rules: coaches, organisations and even Governments can sometimes try to get in on the act.
But the people, aside from the athletes, that have the greatest influence on the outcome of a competition and have the most important role and responsibility in sport are the referees, judges, umpires and officials. They make sure we have safe, rule abiding competitions so things are fair on the sporting battlefield – a level playing field for all.
But rules can be manipulated, deliberately or unintentionally. A single call, judgment or decision can effect who wins in the end. It could be as obvious as disallowing a goal or something as seemingly insignificant as allowing an athlete more time to take their throw, giving one athlete a better lane draw then others, or calling someone offside when they weren’t.
One of the most famous and outrageous incidents, that I can recollect, of officials possibly misusing their roles happened in the men’s triple jump in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. In the final, nine out of 12 jumps that could have challenged the Russian athletes were ruled fouls. But it was the jump by Australian Ian Campbell that was the jaw dropper. His longest hop, skip and jump exceeded the Olympic record only to be quickly red flagged by the Russian officials citing some obscure, and quite frankly ridiculous rule, that he dragged his non-jumping foot on the ground, which he clearly did not. Was this intentional manipulation by the officials to try to affect the outcome, gross incompetence or simply misunderstanding and misapplying a rule?
Competitions take place at a designated place, on a specific date and start at a set time but when do they finish, really finish? When is the result permanent, fixed, carved in stone, sealed and can never be changed? Ever? Can we ever really know who the true winner is? Is the best we can hope for is, this is the “Winner, for now”?
Changing results after a competition is over and rearranging the position of the finishers is not that uncommon. What is more unusual is having results and standings, points, positions and medals change and then later changing them back again to the original results.
In 1976 at the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix, Britain’s James Hunt won the race, but was later disqualified for a rule violation. But after an appeal, Hunt’s win and valuable points were reinstated and he went on to become the world champion that year.
If you go back even further in history, over a hundred years, there is another incident of musical podium chairs that one could argue has still not completely been resolved:
At the 1912 Stockholm Summer Olympics American Jim Thorpe won both the decathlon and the pentathlon by a stunning margin. He dominated the competition and won gold medals in both disciplines. His performance was so impressive that Sweden’s King Gustaf V apparently told Thorpe when presenting him with his gold medals, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.”
Unfortunately, months later, after an investigation, Thorpe was disqualified for breaking the rules – it was decided he was a professional and not an amateur athlete because he had received money for playing baseball, which was not allowed and against the Olympic rules at that time. So his amazing and historic Olympic performance was stricken from the record books and his titles and medals were taken away. His Olympic title and gold medals were then given to Hugo Wieslander for the decathlon and Ferdinand Reinhardt Bie for the pentathlon.
Fast forward to 1982, seven decades later and over a quarter of a century after Thorpe had died, and the IOC reversed their previous ruling and reinstated Thorpe as double Olympic champion. His medals and titles were returned to him because his disqualification had occurred long after the 30-day time period allowed by the IOC’s own Olympic rules.
So finally, 70 years on, everything is sorted: Thorpe’s incredible athletic Olympic accomplishment and dominance at the 1912 Olympics is officially recognised once more. He is the 1912 decathlon and pentathlon champion. But there is one small catch with his reinstatement – he now has to share the titles with the two other athletes – Wieslander in the decathlon and Bie in the pentathlon. Thorpe is now just a co-champion. Despite his overwhelming superiority in those competitions, the other athletes elevated positions remain in place.
Surprisingly, if you go to the IOC website, even now, and click on the photo of Thorpe it says this below the image “American athlete Jim Thorpe, the disqualified winner of the pentathlon and the decathlon at the Stockholm 1912 Olympic Games”.
So Thorpe won two events, was then disqualified, then reinstated and is now a co-Olympic champion and is still identified by the IOC as “the disqualified winner”. Maybe that hammer and chisel should be put down. Maybe, just maybe the results are still not completely final yet.
It is important that there be a clear and decisive winner in sports competition. Having a temporary and changing result is not good for the participants, spectators or for that matter sport. There must and should be a winner.
Winning and becoming a winner should be something we strive for even if we never get there. There should be a value to coming first because we can’t all be winners, can we? Should we hand out medals to everyone that competes, as I witnessed at my nine-year-old daughter’s gymnastics competition recently, where hundreds of medals were doled out like candy at Halloween. One podium ceremony had 22 places and 40+ medals awarded! Doesn’t that diminish the value of winning, if everyone gets a medal?
On the other hand, what’s the value in winning a competition if you have no opposition like in master’s track and field? In some of the older age group categories in the 80s+, 90s+ and 100 year olds + there is sometimes just one competitor, even at a national or international level. Can you win something when you are the only competitor? Is that worth anything? In this instance I would have to step in and say a resounding yes. Having competed as a masters athlete myself for years and seen firsthand what some of these people can do in their twilight years is extraordinary. Just seeing a guy in his eighties or nineties standing on top of a podium is impressive enough let alone after running, jumping or throwing!
We have sport competitions to find out who are the fastest, strongest, most talented athletes and teams, who are the best competitors, who can rise to the challenge under pressure. It is a valuable life skill and in sport it is visible for all to see. We need to be able to identify the winners clearly and celebrate their accomplishments without any doubt, concerns or scepticism. When we look at the podium, we must know and be confident the people standing on top were the best competitors that day, period.
Winners should be celebrated and be able to enjoy their “spoils” whether its filling their bank accounts with prize money from competing and endorsement deals or just having the satisfaction of doing ones best and beating the opposition. We just need to make sure we identify a clear victor.
Roald Bradstock represented Britain in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics and in 1996 was an alternate for the United States Olympic team. Bradstock competed in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 United States Olympic Trials. He has now switched his allegiance back to Britain. In addition to being an Olympic athlete, Bradstock is also an Olympic artist dubbed “The Olympic Picasso”.