Those who witnessed the moment would remember it clearly, both for the setting and for the emotional rise and fall that accompanied it. The shot put competition at the 2004 Olympics took place 115 miles from Athens, at the site of the original Olympic Games from 776 B.C. to 394 A.D., a ceremonial construct recognizing the roots of the Games. Throwing rings were placed on the original 192-meter dirt track and more than 10,000 spectators sat on dead grass on the surrounding hillsides. Competitors entered the throwing area by walking through an archway constructed of massive old stones. At the time, Danish thrower Joachim Olsen said, "It was so great that I had to look down so that I wouldn't get too emotional."
The competition itself was scarcely less emotional. Adam Nelson of the United States, silver medalist at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the 2001 world championships in Edmonton and the 2002 worlds in Paris, took the lead on his first throw of the finals at 69 feet, 5¼ inches. There Nelson remained for the ensuing four rounds (he fouled on all four) and until just two attempts remained in the final round. It was then Yuriy Bilonog of Ukraine matched Nelson's throw. In the event of a tie in the shot put, first place is awarded to the athlete with the longest second-best throw, and since Nelson didn't have another legal throw, suddenly he was in the painfully familiar silver spot.
He went through the frenzied pre-throw routine that had helped transform the shot put into a marquee event in the United States, throwing his T-shirt to the dusty ground and marching bug-eyed into the ring. Under enormous pressure, Nelson turned loose a gold medal throw, "by about two feet,'' he recalled Wednesday. But the official's red flag shot skyward, nullifying the throw and consigning Nelson again to second place. Nelson argued, but says now, "It was a blatant foul,'' that he couldn't feel because of the placement of his foot in the ring.
In the fading daylight and settling dust, Nelson hugged his wife, Laci, both in tears, and then ran the gantlet of international media, crestfallen while Bilonog trotted around the makeshift theater wrapped in the blue and yellow flag of his country, the big man's victory lap.
Nelson would continue on with one of the most distinguished throwing careers of any U.S. athlete. A year after Athens at the 2005 worlds in Helsinki, throwing in the cold and rain at that city's own ancient Olympic stadium, he won a gold medal. In 2007, he dropped back to silver at the worlds in Osaka, Japan, and in 2008 made his third U.S. Olympic team (though he did not medal in Beijing). Yet for all his success, his career had been largely measured by a narrow miss that afternoon in Olympia.
"That competition was special that day,'' said Nelson Wednesday. "It was in the birthplace of the Olympic Games, and it was at a time in history'' -- the first summer Games, post-9/11 -- "where there were a lot of things going on, that put the United States in a unique position, diplomatically. For me, it was a defining moment in my career and my life.''
After Nelson finished second in Sydney, his agent told him a gold medal would have been worth at least $500,000 in sponsorship money and endorsements. "The silver,'' says Nelson, "was worth a lot less, I can tell you that.'' Surely, the numbers were similarly mismatched four years later. Also at the end of 2004, Nelson's shoe and apparel contract expired and he was unable to secure a new one. For the ensuing two years, he would have no sponsor. (He once ran an auction to attract sponsors, but his finished his career sponsored by Saucony).
The silver in Olympia did not ruin Nelson. Quite the opposite, he remained not only a viable international competitor, but also a strident voice in support of track and field athletes' rights and a positively all-world interview for track journalists, capable of bringing perspective, emotion and humor, sometimes all the same breath (as befits a man with an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth and an MBA from the University of Virginia). But something would always be missing. "I came into the sport as a professional with two goals,'' said Nelson Wednesday. "One, was an Olympic gold medal. Two was a world record.''
On Wednesday afternoon, he might have gotten one of them. The International Olympic Committee announced Bilonog is one of four medalists from the Athens Olympic Games whose drug test samples were shown to have contained banned substances upon retesting. (In 2004 the IOC began preserving samples, with the intention of testing them at a later date with more advanced technology). Bilonog's sample tested positive for oxandrolone, a banned synthetic steroid. The original women's shot put gold medalist from Olympia, Irina Korzhanenko of Russia, tested positive just days after the competition, at which time I wrote, 'You can take the shot put out of the 21st century, but you can't take the 21st century out of the shot put', and while it is unseemly to repeat oneself, that sentiment is even more true today.
While Bilonog was stripped of his gold medal, the IOC did not immediately announce whether the silver and bronze medalists and fourth-place finishers would be elevated or if the gold would simply be vacated. (For instance, after Marion Jones was stripped of her 100-meter gold medal from the 2000 Olympics, no athlete was given the gold, presumably because the silver and bronze medalists also have doping histories. Nelson has a clean record and when I asked him Wednesday if he has always been drug-free, he said, "Yes, completely.''). The IAAF, track and field's international governing body, will issue the ultimate ruling.
Nelson, 37, received the news of Bilonog's disqualification in a phone call from reporter Mary Pilon of the New York Times on Wednesday afternoon, while Nelson was driving from his home in Atlanta to the airport. I talked to him three hours later, after he had landed in Austin, Texas, where he is speaking this weekend at a symposium on the future of track and field. The news had predictably stirred deep emotions in Nelson, but more than that, it had left him reflective on both his career and his sport. (A career which, Nelson said, is now over. "When the rumors of this first started surfacing last week, I stopped training,'' said Nelson. "Now I'm officially retired. This is the capstone of my career.'').
"To be robbed of winning a gold medal at that moment is very frustrating,'' said Nelson. "But I've had a little bit of time to think about this. What happened that day gave me the motivation to continue on and work even harder in my career. I don't know if I would have done that if I had won the gold medal. So now I guess I get the best of both worlds.'' There was other collateral damage from Bilonog's positive that can't be similarly rectified; American John Godina was in ninth place after three throws in '04 final. The top eight throwers get three additional throws. Bilonog's doping cost Godina three more throws and, in a very tight competition, possibly more. Godina, who took silver at the 1996 Olympics and bronze in 2000, was among those who texted congratulations to Nelson Wednesday, as was Nelson's close friend and training partner, Reese Hoffa, bronze medalist at the 2012 London Games.
The result, says Nelson, gives life to the hope that track can someday shed its image as a drug-addled venture in which only Usain Bolt is worth watching. "I applaud the IOC and I applaud WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency) for continuing this process. To me, it reinforces the Olympic ideal.'' But, he says, there is much work still ahead. "There are countries in the world that are fully compliant with drug testing, and there are countries that are not compliant.''
Nelson first burst onto the U.S track and field scene with his victory at the 2000 Olympic Trials. A few days after that win, I met with him at his training base at Stanford, where he explained the mechanics of shot putting with the memorable description: "Little Joe makes the ball go,'' while patting his round belly.
Track and field, both domestically and internationally, is little more than a small traveling circus where everyone knows everyone else. When Nelson last appeared under the big top, it was on a rainy afternoon in Eugene at last summer's U.S. Olympic Trials. Nursing a sore groin, he threw terribly and failed to gain a spot among the final 12 throwers. He shed tears in the media interview zone and as he left, he stopped to tell me a story. At the end of the 2005, I had written an essay about Nelson's perseverance in Sports Illustrated's year-end issue. "A businessman in Atlanta read that story you wrote about me back then,'' Nelson said, "and he gave me a job. So just remember, the words you write can mean something.'' Few athletes would take the time to say thank you or offer perspective on a day filled with disappointment.
On Wednesday evening, we talked on the phone and I asked Nelson how he expects to receive his gold medal (if he receives it). "I'm sure I'll just get a box in the mail,'' he said, laughing.
If that gold medal is awarded, and perhaps even if it is not, USA Track and Field should celebrate the moment as it would any other gold medal. It is impossible to recreate the atmosphere of an Olympic medal ceremony. But it is not impossible to put a man on a podium, raise a flag and play the national anthem. Perhaps at the national championships at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa. (Or perhaps, if IAAF deigns to give Nelson his medal, they could do it at the world championships in Moscow). If the message is clean athletes deserve medals, then deliver it with all the power of the sport.