One of the most memorable medals from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics wasn’t actually issued until 16 months later. On December 6, 1993, Sylvie Fréchette received the synchronized swimming gold medal she’d initially been denied because of an error entering a judge’s score.
It was a long-awaited gold for Fréchette, and one made even more special by the tough circumstances she battled through to claim it; she lost her grandfather a few months before the Olympics, and her fiancée and business manager, Sylvain Lake, committed suicide in their shared condo just a week before the Games. Fréchette somehow managed to fight through those personal tragedies and give the performance of her career in the Barcelona pool.
Yet, that wasn’t even enough – at first. Fréchette turned in a strong performance in the preliminary round of the solo competition, and she was rewarded for it with judges’ scores ranging from 9.2 to 9.6 – all except one. That score, a shockingly low 8.7 for one of Fréchette’s compulsory scores from Brazilian judge Ana Maria da Silveira Lobo, stood out not just as an outlier, but as an accident.
Da Silveira Lobo had meant to give Fréchette a 9.7, but misentered the score, pressed the wrong button when she tried to change it and couldn’t explain what went wrong to the Japanese assistant referee, making the score permanent. Protests from the Canadian team were ignored, and that put Fréchette at a huge disadvantage heading into the final. It didn’t dissuade her from putting on an incredible show, though.
Despite Fréchette’s remarkable performance in the final round, the inadvertent preliminary 8.7 meant she finished second behind American swimmer Kristen Babb-Sprague. Even with her taking the still-impressive silver medal, it must have seemed like the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune were still dragging her down. Fréchette had a powerful ally in her corner, though, and that led to a remarkable ending to her 1992 Olympic odyssey.
That ally was Dick Pound. Long before he was the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency and embroiled in countless conflicts with figures from sports ranging from hockey to cycling, Pound was a major Olympic power broker. He competed for Canada in swimming at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, then went on to several prominent roles with the Canadian Olympic Committee and eventually became its president. Pound was elected to the International Olympic Committee in 1978 and went on to take some of its most prominent roles, including negotiating the television and sponsorship deals that were crucial to making the Olympics the modern sporting force they are.
He was an IOC vice-president at the time of the 1992 Games and was soon to be seen as the front-runner to succeed president Juan Antonio Samaranch (that job eventually went to Jacques Rogge). It was no secret that Pound was one of the most influential figures in the IOC, and he put that influence to work to get Fréchette the medal she had been robbed of by a technical judging mistake.
After 16 months, those efforts paid off. The international swimming federation, FINA, gave their blessing to awarding Fréchette a gold medal, and the IOC eventually concurred. She finally put the long-awaited gold around her neck on December 6, 1993 in front of 2,000 supportive fans at the Montreal Forum. It wasn’t the end of the line for Fréchette, who made a remarkable comeback after two years away from the sport and was part of the Canadian synchronized swimming team’s silver medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, but it was an amazingly upbeat finish to her tragedy-marred odyssey.
What’s perhaps most interesting about Fréchette’s story is the precedent it set. The IOC’s decision to admit to a judging error and give Fréchette a gold medal was a remarkable one; it meant Babb-Sprague was allowed to keep the initial gold she picked up in Barcelona, and both are considered gold medalists in the official books. It’s a difficult situation to deal with, as downgrading a gold-winning performance 16 months after the fact would also be problematic, so the organization chose to attempt to rectify their mistake by boosting the athlete hurt by it without diminishing the one who benefited from it (a different approach from the one the IOC had taken in cases of positive drug tests, such as the 1988 one that saw the 100-metre gold medal stripped from Ben Johnson and given to Carl Lewis).
Whether one views the move to offer dual gold medals as laudable or disingenuous, it’s almost official IOC policy now, and has come up in subsequent Games, most famously when Canadian figure skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier were awarded gold medals after the fact (to join the original winners, Russians Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze) in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics following a significant judging controversy.
Fréchette’s 1992 odyssey isn’t just about her story of battling through tragedy and persevering despite the odds; it’s also about the IOC’s landmark decision on how to deal with judging mistakes, an issue that’s come up since then and that could come up again in London.