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Mind over Medal

Sept. 06, 2004
Sept. 06, 2004

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Sept. 6, 2004

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Mind over Medal

What's an Olympic gold medal worth? The woman who just won the 200meter butterfly in Athens is fixing to find out.

This is an article from the Sept. 6, 2004 issue Original Layout

She's going to sell it.

Poland's Otylia Jedrzejczak will keep it until December, just to show her friends, pose for pictures and feel its tug on the back of her neck, and then she'll put it up for the highest bid at a Polish auction house.

She got the idea after reading a book about a child with leukemia who writes letters to God, telling how he feels about dying. The last entry is made by his nurse, who writes, Oscar was a very brave boy.

"I was waiting before my race, and I decided if I win the gold medal, God help me, I will give it to the children," she said last week from Warsaw.

What's a gold medal bring? Well, there's only about $100 worth of gold in a gold medal, but eBay bidders think they're worth more. Last week a gold won by Canadian boxer Albert Schneider at the 1920 Antwerp Games sold on the auction website for $3,676, and a gold won by Cuban catcher Alberto Hernandez at the '92 Barcelona Games went for $3,551. Up for bid this week were golds that Hernandez got in Atlanta in '96 and Romanian gymnast Ecaterina Szabo won in L.A. in '84. Hey, immortality doesn't put supper on the table.

"Oh, I am hoping for much more," Jedrzejczak said.

But won't you miss being able to see it, touch it, display it? "I do not need to see the medal to know I won it," she says. "The medal is in my heart."

Mark Spitz's nine gold medals aren't in his heart. They're in a safe-deposit box at all times. Rulon Gardner keeps his gold medal in a safe in his garage. Summer Sanders keeps hers in a sock drawer. Not exactly beacons of joy to the world.

Carl Lewis buried one of his nine golds with his father. Dick Button had his first one made into a belt buckle for his mother. Muhammad Ali threw his off a bridge. When Bill Johnson won the 1984 downhill in Sarajevo, reporters asked him what winning meant to him. "Millions and millions," Johnson said. He's still waiting.

What's a gold worth when nobody's sure you deserved it? Gymnast Paul Hamm might tell you. What's it worth when you've won five others? "Between $30 million and $50 million" over Michael Phelps's lifetime, says his agent, Peter Carlisle.

What's it worth overseas? The Romanian government will give each of its gymnasts who won the women's team title $50,000 cash, two cars, a college scholarship and a rent-free apartment. Not bad in a country where the average take-home pay is less than $175 a month. In Ukraine a gold fetches $100,000, plus a free apartment in Kiev. Win gold in Kenya, and you get a flat-screen TV and a washing machine.

But what's a gold medal worth if you lose it? Ask Matt Emmons of the U.S. With one shot to go in Athens, Emmons was on his way to a laugher of a win in the three-position 50-meter rifle event. In fact, all he had to do was hit the target. It'd be like telling Picasso all he had to do was hit the canvas.

Emmons fired, then looked at his monitor to see how he'd done. But there was no bullet hole. He told an official he thought there was some weird glitch. Just then the official saw two holes in the target of the shooter next to Emmons and announced that the American would receive a zero for the shot.

"I changed my routine a little," Emmons said, "and it cost me."

With one crossfire Emmons, 23, had blown a gold medal and the $25,000 bonus the USOC pays for gold. That kind of money may be cab fare to Phelps, but it's large to a guy going to school and driving a used Blazer.

"I don't know why, but my first thought wasn't, I want to cut my throat," said Emmons, who earlier in the Games had won the 50-meter prone rifle event. "I just said to myself, These things happen."

So he did something completely screwy. He didn't blame anybody but himself. Didn't blame the setup, in which the targets were only three feet apart, unusually cramped in shooting. He didn't file a protest or a grievance, or fake a motorcycle accident. He just said, "I made a mistake, and I don't deserve the gold medal."

He put down his rifle, shook the hand of the shocked winner and hugged teammate Michael Anti, who had suddenly won silver.

And that's when all the good stuff started happening.

Every shooter and every coach came up to Emmons, who had NASDAQed to eighth place, held him by the shoulders and said, "You were the best shooter today." His parents started getting calls, letters and media attention, everyone wanting to know how they raised a kid like that.

"You hate to say this," says his dad, Dick, of Browns Mill, N.J., "but in a way this is the best thing that could've happened to him. Everybody in shooting has gone out of their way to tell him how they feel about him. His mom and I are happier about this than any medal."

What's a gold medal worth when it's gone?

"I don't need the medal to know I was the best in the world that day," Emmons says. "So I guess it's kind of in my heart, too."

Beats a sock drawer.

If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to reilly@siletters.com.

"I do not need to see the medal to know I won it," Poland's Otylia Jedrzejczak says. "The medal is in my heart."

COLOR PHOTOBOB MARTIN