Alysia Montaño is set to be upgraded to a bronze medal after her rivals doped. That still feels like a ‘stab in the gut’

A step onto the podium. A medal draped over your head and a flag raised in your honor. Music. Tears of joy and relief as years of hard work come to fruition.

Receiving a first Olympic medal is supposed to be a momentous and exhilarating occasion for every athlete but not Alysia Montaño.

It was late at night in Cleveland this year when the American athlete was informed that her fourth-place finish at the 2012 Olympics is set to be upgraded to bronze. Alone in a hotel room, thousands of miles from home, her initial emotions were only emptiness and loss.

This should have come 12 years earlier, in a packed stadium with her family sitting proudly in the stands. Instead, all Montaño could do was lie down and stare vacantly at the ceiling as the hours drifted by.

“A stab in the gut, in the heart, really,” is how she describes her supposed moment of triumph. “I kind of felt a sinking feeling, to be honest.”

Montaño initially placed fifth in the women’s 800-meter final in London, about half a second outside the medal positions having led the race bravely through the first lap.

In front of her were two Russian athletes – Mariya Savinova, who had streaked away from the rest of the field on the final straight, and Ekaterina Guliyev (then known as Ekaterina Poistogova), who narrowly edged out Kenya’s Pamela Jelimo for bronze.

Both Savinova and Guliyev were identified in a 2015 report, commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), as having benefitted from Russia’s state-sponsored doping program, though Montaño’s performance at the London Olympics is only just now receiving the recognition it deserves.

Montaño leading the women's 800-meter final at the 2012 Olympics. - Stu Forster/Getty Images
Montaño leading the women's 800-meter final at the 2012 Olympics. - Stu Forster/Getty Images

Savinova was stripped of her gold medal in 2017, while Guliyev is also set to lose her silver, upgraded from bronze, after the Athletics Integrity Unit announced this month that her results from July 17, 2012 to October 20, 2014 would be disqualified.

Guliyev, now competing for Turkey under her husband’s surname, has been given a two-year ban and has until May 13 to appeal the decision.

She has previously served another two-year ban for doping violations, voiding her results back to October 2015, and attempted to argue in a tribunal that there was no evidence to bring further charges against her. CNN has contacted the Turkish Athletic Federation for further comment.

In the days after learning that she could be awarded a bronze medal, Montaño says that her emotions oscillated from joy to sadness to something akin to grief.

Her despair is at its lowest when she thinks of her grandmother, who turned 100 days before the 800-meter final in London and celebrated by watching the race from a hospital bed, never to know that Montaño’s fifth place would later be upgraded.

“You can’t ever get that back,” the 38-year-old Montaño explains. “The loss is history lost; the loss is the moment lost; the loss is the people who were there to hug you and cheer for you; the loss is the homecoming parade. These things are very real.”

This is not a new situation for Montaño, who was retrospectively awarded bronze medals for her performances at the 2011 and 2013 world championships after Savinova was stripped of gold in both races.

While competing, she says that she was suspicious of her Russian rivals, partly after observing a sharp and unprecedented improvement in some athletes’ results and partly from the ease with which they would pass her on the track.

Savinova celebrates her winning gold at the London Olympics, a title of which she was later stripped. - Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images
Savinova celebrates her winning gold at the London Olympics, a title of which she was later stripped. - Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images

“It’s like you’re running against robots,” says Montaño. “When you get beaten by a competitor, you can feel the huff and the puff of the two of you kind of going at it, or the three of you going at it.

“Sticking your neck out there for just a second of time, or a millisecond of time, and it just isn’t the same way. Anybody can go and watch those videos [of past races] and see: this is wild.”

In 2019, six and eight years after winning her two world championship medals, Montaño and her family – her husband, parents and children – were invited to Doha in Qatar for a staging of the medal ceremonies she never had.

But the crowd in the stadium was scant and the accompanying fireworks display, she thought, was underwhelming, making her feel “even more empty.”

Now, Montaño hopes to receive her Olympic medal at the 2028 Games in Los Angeles, with family, friends, supporters and sponsors there to see the moment – unlike American shot putter Adam Nelson, who was handed his gold medal next to a Burger King, nine years later than intended due to a rival’s doping violation.

She also wants to recoup some of the financial losses she incurred by being denied an Olympic medal, and one of her current sponsors, Clif Bar, has already agreed to pay Montaño an undisclosed financial bonus for finishing third in 2012, even though she partnered with the company after the London Olympics.

Based on the contracts she had at the time, Montaño estimates that she has missed out on payments amounting to “well over seven figures.”

However, the true sum is impossible to quantify; winning a medal at a major championship, she explains, increases an athlete’s potential earnings when it comes to negotiating appearance fees or future contracts.

Montaño being awarded her bronze medal from the 2013 world championships in 2019. - Mustafa Abumunes/AFP/Getty Images
Montaño being awarded her bronze medal from the 2013 world championships in 2019. - Mustafa Abumunes/AFP/Getty Images

“Even now, I walk into a conversation and folks run through your accolades and you know the difference between being a medalist and not being one is a huge pay cut,” says Montaño.

“It’s like anybody who walks into a job interview and their experience gets them a difference with what their compensation is going to be. Coming off [the 2011 world championships] and being a bronze medalist, my bargaining power would have been through the roof,” she added.

She believes that some athletes competing at this year’s Paris Olympics will end up suffering a similar fate to her – potentially being robbed of their moment on the podium and in the spotlight – and wants to see harsher punishments introduced for those found guilty of doping offenses.

“We need to have a much more difficult pathway for athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs to re-enter the sport,” says Montaño.

“We also have to have much heavier repercussions, I think, from a financial aspect for athletes who choose to dope … There needs to be heavy fines, especially if you want to re-enter the sport. And right now, there’s not enough repercussion.”

CNN has contacted US Olympic and Paralympic Committee about athletes being compensated if they are awarded a medal retrospectively.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) operates a medal reallocation process, enabling athletes to be recognized at a ceremony of their choosing once the reallocation has been approved.

Missing out on medals and potential earnings has contributed towards what Montaño describes as a sense of “isolation” from the sport of track and field during a career beset with challenges.

In 2019, she told the New York Times that Nike said it would pause her contract and stop paying her if she wanted to have a baby, prompting the company to later adjust its maternity policy so that female athletes wouldn’t be “adversely impacted financially for pregnancy” for 18 months, which was six months more than the previous policy.

“I definitely have felt a lot of trauma around the track and competing in the sport,” says Montaño, having last competed in an elite race in 2017.

But her love for running remains undiminished. She still enjoys heading out on the roads and trails and strongly believes that the sport provides a powerful, positive influence, especially when it comes to her own struggles and frustrations.

“I feel like I leave all of that stuff behind once I lace up and I get going,” says Montaño. “Once my adrenaline starts rushing and my blood starts coursing through my body and my heart starts pumping, my head gains clarity.”

As for the prospect of being awarded an Olympic medal, 2028 will be a full 16 years after she raced in London and crossed the line in a state of exhaustion – an extraordinary and often painful expanse of time.

For Montaño, the moment should at least offer some sort of closure.

“I’m hopeful that it’ll feel like a chapter on which we can turn a page,” she says, “instead of being stuck on the same sentence.”

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at