The Waiting Games

August 1, 2016, 4:30 PM

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Like a hologram shimmering somewhere in the indefinite future, a virtual podium will hover alongside many upcoming Rio 2016 medal ceremonies.

Increasingly, medal standings are being altered based on the contents of refrigerators in Lausanne, Switzerland, where urine and blood samples for performance-enhancing drug testing are stored for up to 10 years and retested with updated methods at the behest of the International Olympic Committee.

Olympic officials and anti-doping advocates tout the ever-lengthening frontier of drug testing as a deterrent and an assurance that they will pursue athletes who dope, even years after the fact and right up to the statute of limitations. But the system for disqualifying those athletes, reshuffling results and reallocating medals is so cumbersome and prolonged that, by the time it plays out, economic and psychic payoffs for the new recipients have long since evaporated.

"There's no way to replace the things that I've lost," said Adam Nelson, a U.S. shot putter who received his gold medal from the 2004 Athens Games in 2013 -- in an airport food court. "It's the memories and the trajectory of your life.

"The reality is that the only people to get punished in the sport from doping [are] the clean athletes." The anti-doping system is fundamentally broken, he added, and lacks "the right people in place to make sure that everybody is held to the same standards."

Canadian cross-country skier Beckie Scott was ecstatic with her 2002 Olympic bronze medal, the first won by a North American woman in that sport. Yet she watched the Russian flag rise with a fatalism about her opponents' improbable performances that had been "part of my psyche for years," she said. She eventually was awarded the silver and then the gold.

Delayed medals never quite add up to full gratification for athletes. Instead, they symbolize the butterfly effect of an altered trajectory. The difference between gold and silver alone can swell to seven figures over a career. Prize money can sometimes be restored, but that's generally a pittance compared to the contractual and commercial opportunities that vanish, impossible to re-create. And there's no way to reconstitute the pomp and emotion of the moment.

An Outside the Lines analysis documented 57 medals that have been stripped due to doping in Summer and Winter Games since 2000, about a year after the World Anti-Doping Agency came into being, although its first harmonized code was still four years away. The largest number of stripped medals, 25, came in track and field. Weightlifting was second, with eight. Three cases involved doped horses in equestrian events.