As news broke Wednesday that U.S. swimmer Klete Keller, winner of five Olympic medals—including two golds—had been charged with violating federal law for allegedly participating in the January 6th riot on the U.S. Capitol, calls for his Olympic medals to be stripped immediately emerged on social media. “Lock him up,” wrote one commenter. “But first … take his medal[s] away.” Another: “the IOC needs to strip his medals.”
Even before Keller was arrested, some people were clamoring for Olympic officials to take action. “This is simple,” tweeted former ESPN anchor Keith Olbermann on Tuesday, after news reports pointed out Keller’s likely presence in the Capitol Rotunda, amidst the mob. “@TeamUSA, @USASwimming must insist @olympics strip Klete Keller of his Olympic Swimming Medals. Today. He has dishonored his sport and his nation.”
The calls for official punishment are understandable. January 6th will be remembered as a tragic day in American history; the violent attempt to subvert American democracy resulted in five deaths and a second House impeachment of President Donald Trump. Keller’s mere presence in the mob could permanently stain his significant accomplishments. In 2004, for example, he anchored the final leg of the 4X200 freestyle relay in Athens, holding off Australian legend Ian Thorpe and also helping Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte win gold. His alleged involvement in the riot is embarrassing for Team USA and the Olympic movement. And, one can reasonably argue, potentially more damaging than doping, an offense for which the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has reclaimed well over 100 medals.
Still, stripping Keller of his medals seems like, at best, a long shot. According to Olympedia.org, an Olympic history and statistics site, 33 Olympic medalists have received prison sentences over the years, some for crimes as heinous as murder, sexual abuse, and international human trafficking. They’re all still Olympic medalists. There’s no historical precedent for taking Olympic medals away for bad behavior, no matter how noxious, outside of sports. “I don’t think there’s a chance in hell that Klete Keller is going to lose an Olympic medal for what he did,” says Olympic historian Bill Mallon, founder of Olympedia.org. “The IOC is ruled by a document called the Olympic Charter, which is basically the Constitution of the Olympic movement. And there’s nothing in here about stripping medals from people for behavior after the Olympics.”
The IOC can always change its rules. But the organization is in no rush to do so. “The Olympic Medals were awarded for sporting achievements in the Olympic Games 2000, 2004 and 2008,” says an IOC spokesperson, in response to questions about the potential fate of Keller’s medals. “For the IOC there is nothing further to add.”
In the Olympics, achievements are generally erased when the integrity of the competition is compromised. So drug cheats are fair game to have their medals stripped. A few athletes, like American Jim Thorpe, lost their medals for receiving money and violating old Olympic amateurism rules, though these medals were later reinstated. Boxer Ingermar Johansson, of Sweden, was disqualified from the heavyweight gold medal fight at the 1952 Helsinki Games for, in the eyes of the ref, failing to put up a fight against American Ed Sanders. Johansson eventually received his silver in 1982.
Bad sportsmanship can cost you. In 1992, weightlifter Ibragim Samadov of the Unified Team hurled his bronze medal to the floor and stormed off the stage during the awards ceremony. In 2000 Swedish wrestler Ara Abrahamian dropped his bronze medal on the mat in protest of the refereeing. The IOC stripped the bronzes from both of them: they haven’t been returned.
But James Snook remains a gold medalist in the record books. The American shooter won two golds at the 1920 Games in Antwerp. In 1929 Snook, who was a professor of veterinary medicine at Ohio State University, was convicted of murdering his mistress; the indictment claimed he severed her jugular vein after beating her with a hammer. Snook claimed self-defense. The trial was so salacious—Snook’s testimony detailed his sexual encounters with the victim—kids under 18 were not permitted in the courtroom. “Much of the testimony not having been printed in newspapers,” wrote the New York Times, “certain persons, securing an uncensored transcript, had booklets on sale on the street [in Columbus, Ohio] today before the jury returned its verdict.” The trial, a true spectacle for its day, drew national interest. “Direct wires leading to all points of the United States and Canada led out of the courtroom,” according to one of the booklets. “Each day of the trial thousands of curious stormed the small court room where the trial was conducted. So eager were some to hear the testimony adduced that it was not infrequent for them to appear at the Court House as early as three o’clock in the morning.” Snook was executed, via the electric chair, in 1930.
Or take Murray Riley of Australia who in 1956 partnered with a fellow New South Wales police officer, Mervyn Wood, to win rowing bronze in Melbourne. He soon left the force and turned to a career of bribery, fraud, and international drug trafficking, earning several prison sentences—he even escaped once. Austria’s Wolfgang Schwartz won figure skating gold at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France. In 2002 he was sentenced to 1½ years in prison on trafficking charges related to bringing women from Lithuania and Russia to Austria to work as prostitutes. In 2006, he received another prison sentence—this one for eight years—for plotting to kidnap the teenage daughter of a Romanian businessman. American boxer Riddick Bowe, the former world heavyweight champion, won silver in Seoul in 1988; he received an 18-month sentence for abducting his estranged wife and five children from their home in 1998. Riley, Schwartz and Bowe are still Olympic medalists.
Keller fell on hard times after retiring from swimming after the 2008 Beijing Games. He had trouble adjusting to the working world. “I lost several jobs,” Keller said on a 2018 Olympic Channel podcast. “I’ll be honest, I wasn’t a good employee or worker for the longest time because I expected it all to come to me as easily as swimming did.” He got divorced and spent a period of time living in his car. But Keller seemed to turn his life around. He worked with a real estate company, Hoff & Leigh, in Colorado. On Tuesday, Hoff & Leigh released a statement saying Keller resigned from the company. “Hoff & Leigh supports the right of free speech and lawful protest but we cannot condone actions that violate the rule of law,” the company said. (Keller could not be reached for comment.)
On social media prior to January 6, Keller reportedly wrote pro-Trump messages. He has since deleted his accounts. The criminal complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., alleges that Keller knowingly entering a restricted building without lawful authority to do so, engaged in disorderly conduct to impede government business, and impeded law enforcement from performing official duties. As the case against Keller unfolds, the USOPC could lobby the IOC to take away Keller’s medals. Given the lack of precedent, however, such a move would be surprising. Keller may face justice but he’ll likely still hold onto his gold.