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

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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

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.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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From Ear to Eternity: When Mike Tyson Bit Evander Holyfield

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Focus On Sport/Getty Images

As the 16,000 spectators began filing out of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, following a night of fights on June 28, 1997, MGM employee Mitch Libonati noticed something strange on the floor of the boxing ring. He later described it as being roughly the size of a fingernail, with the texture of a piece of hot dog or sausage.

It was no concession stand remnant. It was a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Wrapping the morsel of flesh in a latex glove, Libonati hurried backstage, where Holyfield was conferring with officials and doctors after his opponent, Mike Tyson, had been disqualified for biting him on the left ear. In all the commotion, Libonati wasn't allowed inside the room. But Michael Grant, one of Holyfield’s training partners, accepted the ear fragment on Holyfield’s behalf.

Libonati’s discovery was the climax to one of boxing’s most controversial and bizarre evenings, one in which "Iron" Mike Tyson—the most famous fighter of his era—meted out a savage reprimand for what he perceived was dirty fighting on the part of Holyfield. The ear-biting far exceeded the brutal underpinnings of boxing and added to Tyson's reputation as a frenzied combatant both in and out of the ring.

 

Mike Tyson’s collision with Evander Holyfield had started when the two were just teenagers. On the amateur circuit, they had sparred together—not quite knowing the heights each would achieve, but understanding the other would be a formidable obstacle if they were to ever meet as professionals.

Evander Holyfield (L) had success against Mike Tyson (R) early on.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Tyson was a prodigy, having won the heavyweight championship of the world in 1986 at the age of 19 and dominating the division up until an upset loss to James “Buster” Douglas in Tokyo, Japan, in 1990. Holyfield was the lighter fighter at cruiserweight (190 pounds), moving up to the heavyweight division in 1988 and gaining respect for his trilogy with Riddick Bowe.

Long before that fateful night in 1997, Tyson's personal life had started to overshadow his accomplishments inside the ring: An allegedly abusive marriage to actress Robin Givens darkened his image in the media and ended in a very public divorce after just one year. In 1992, a rape conviction sidelined the fighter for more than three years while he served out his prison sentence.

When Tyson returned to the ring, he rattled off a string of wins against fighters not quite at his level, including Peter McNeeley, Buster Mathis Jr., Frank Bruno, and Bruce Seldon. Holyfield had stepped away from competition in 1994, but as Tyson knocked off inferior opponents, talk of a bout with Holyfield intensified. Finally, the two met in Las Vegas on November 9, 1996, with Tyson a 17-1 favorite over the semi-retired Holyfield.

Holyfield would prove his doubters wrong. Through 11 rounds of action, he outmaneuvered and outclassed Tyson by negating his opponent's power with movement and volume. Holyfield also landed headbutts that were declared unintentional, but to Tyson seemed deliberate. Before the fight could see a 12th round, Holyfield knocked Tyson down and earned a technical knockout victory.

 

While it was an undoubtedly disappointing moment for Tyson, an upset in boxing virtually guarantees a lucrative rematch deal. Both men agreed to meet a second time, with Holyfield earning $35 million and Tyson getting $30 million. Tyson’s camp, however, insisted that the referee from the first bout, Mitch Halpern, not be booked for the second, because Tyson felt he failed to call the illegal headbutts. The Nevada State Athletic Commission didn’t want to be seen capitulating to Tyson’s demands, but Halpern stepped aside voluntarily. So referee Mills Lane took his place.

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) first met as amateurs.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Before a huge crowd full of A-list celebrities like Sylvester Stallone and a then-record 1.99 million households that had purchased the event on pay-per-view, Tyson and Holyfield met for a second time at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on June 28, 1997. While Holyfield took the first round, Tyson appeared fit and adaptive, and came out blazing in round two. Then, just as Tyson had feared, Holyfield’s headbutt struck him again.

The clash of heads opened a cut over Tyson’s right eye, which threatened to obscure his vision as the fight went on. It also opened a reservoir of frustration in the fighter that would manifest in a spectacularly violent way.

Coming out for the third round, Tyson had forgotten his mouthpiece and had to go back and retrieve it—a foreshadowing of things to come. His aggression was working against Holyfield, but with 40 seconds left in the round, the two clinched up. Tyson moved his mouth so it was near Holyfield’s right ear. With his mouthpiece still in place, he clamped down on the ear, ripped the top off, and spat it along with his mouthguard onto the canvas.

Holyfield jumped up in the air in shock and pain. Referee Mills Lane was initially confused by what had happened until Holyfield’s trainers, Don Turner and Tommy Brooks, yelled out what Tyson had done. Lane called for a doctor then told Marc Ratner, the executive director of the athletic commission, that he was going to end the fight. Ratner asked if he was sure. Seeing Holyfield was bleeding from his ear but otherwise ready to fight, Lane waved the two men back into competition.

Incredibly, Tyson bit Holyfield a second time, this time on the left ear, before the round ended. This time, Lane was aware of what was happening and had seen enough. Before the start of the fourth round, he disqualified Tyson.

 

That was far from the end of it. Realizing he had lost the fight, Tyson grew incensed, shoving Holyfield from behind and pawing at the security guards who had stormed the ring in an attempt to restore order.

After the bout, Tyson didn’t appear to be overly contrite. He explained that he was frustrated at Holyfield headbutting him without being penalized, and said he had lost control.

An emotional Mike Tyson reacts to his disqualification loss to Evander Holyfield.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

“Listen,” Tyson said. “Holyfield is not the tough warrior everyone says he is. He got a nick on his ear and he quit.”

Tyson believed his retaliation was justified. “This is my career," he said. "I’ve got children to raise and this guy keeps butting me, trying to cut me and get me stopped on cuts. I’ve got to retaliate. What else could I do? He didn’t want to fight. I’m ready to fight right now. Regardless of what I did, he’s been butting me for two fights. I got one eye. He’s not impaired. He’s got ears. I’ve got to go home and my kids will be scared of me. Look at me, look at me, look at me!”

Two days later, Tyson issued a tempered apology in an effort to minimize the consequences, but it was too late. In addition to losing his boxing license in the state of Nevada, Tyson was fined 10 percent of his purse, or $3 million, which was thought to be the largest fine in sports at the time.

 

Tyson could never entirely shake the stigma of his actions. When a lucrative bout with Lennox Lewis was being planned in 2002, the fight ultimately ended up taking place in Memphis, Tennessee; Nevada refused to restore Tyson's license following a press conference brawl between the two men.

Tyson ultimately continued competing through 2005, when he lost his last bout to Kevin McBride. Holyfield retired in 2011. Earlier this year, the 54-year-old Tyson expressed a desire to return to the ring. The fighter once known as "The Baddest Man on the Planet" is scheduled to fight Roy Jones Jr. on November 28, 2020. Yet Holyfield, now 57 years old, remains a possible future opponent.

The two have occasionally interacted in public in interviews, with Tyson expressing remorse and Holyfield admitting he briefly thought about biting Tyson on his face right back. The pair even filmed a spot for Foot Locker in which Tyson “gave” Holyfield the missing piece of his ear.

In reality, Holyfield never did get his ear back. After Mitch Libonati handed it over to Michael Grant, the piece somehow fell out of the latex glove while being transported to the hospital.

Many fighters talk about leaving a little piece of themselves in the ring. It’s usually metaphorical. For Evander Holyfield, it was simply the truth.