Johnson Returns Medal, Jones’s Teammates Don’t

Saying that he felt betrayed by teammate Antonio Pettigrew, Michael Johnson returned his 1,600 meter relay gold medal from the 2000 Sydney Olympics. During track coach Trevor Graham’s trial, Pettigrew testified that he had used performance enhancing drugs. Johnson was not ordered to do so by anyone, but he felt as if it was the right thing to do.

Marion Jones admitted to doping, too. She is now in federal prison on perjury and check fraud convictions. Jones won the five medals at the 2000 Sydney Games, and she, like Pettigrew, ran the 1,600 relay, and the 4×100 relay. Her teammates medals have been stripped by the International Olympic Committee, but they have no intention of returning their medals.

In this case, both groups’ completely contradictory actions are correct.

Johnson said that the medal he won with Pettigrew felt dirty, and he did not want to keep that medal with his other medals. You may remember the golden-shoed Johnson winning the 200 and 400 meter events in 1996 and 2000. With the relay medal, Johnson had five gold medals in his curio cabinet. His many medals showcase the long and successful career he had in track. Taking one medal away doesn’t make Johnson any less of a great athlete. The worst you can call Johnson is naive, as he called himself in an article that said: “I now realize that there have been a significant number of athletes and coaches in this sport who have cheated and taken the short cut, and many of them knew who else was cheating.” Losing a medal is a big punishment for naivete, but heck, Johnson has four more.

Marion Jones had seven teammates who accompanied her on the medal stand. They are now suing the IOC via the Court of Arbitration for Sport. These women worked their whole lives to attain their Olympic dream, and it was taken away because their teammate screwed up. Unlike Pettigrew, who Johnson described as a friend, Jones’s teammates barely knew her. They had no idea that Jones was doping, or that she was involved in any way with the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative. To them, the medals don’t represent Marion Jones and her failures, but their own dreams and successes.

“It’s a part of my destiny,” Latasha Colander-Clark told ESPN. “We’re fighting for our legacy. We’re fighting to be remembered. We trained and we busted our butts and we did good. We did it the way it should be done.”

Johnson’s choice to give his medal back stands in contrast to Jones’s teammates decision to fight to keep theirs. Why wouldn’t Johnson wait for the IOC to strip him of his medal, like they did with Jones’s teammates? Does that make Johnson a better man, or did he just want to avoid the messy publicity of having his medal stripped? Are Jones’s teammates wasting time and money – more than $200,000 – just to save face?

Though they did the exact opposite thing, I agree with Colander-Clark, and I agree with Johnson. Johnson’s legacy is safe. The relay was only one part of his legend, and he will keep his job as a television commentator, columnist and coach, with or without that one medal. It keeps his conscience clean to return the medal. For Colander-Clark et al., their medal is a huge part of their identity. They trained and sacrificed for years to get that medal. If that one piece of hardware is taken away, their legacy is not as as safe as Johnson’s. Their names are wiped from the record books, and they are no longer Olympic medalists. They are fighting to keep their past successes, and I don’t begrudge them that.

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