Adam Nelson Speaks
The 2004 Olympic silver medalist may get gold before Christmas. But is it too little, too late?
by The Trailer
LONDON – By now you’ve probably heard that Yuriy Bilonog of Ukraine, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist for shot put, has tested positive for a banned substance when the IOC took a second look at a small fraction of the samples taken during the 2004 Games. And while the IOC will meet from Dec. 4-5 in Lausanne, Switzerland, to decide what punishment, if any, will be administered, one man, Adam Nelson, is particularly interested.
Nelson, 37, was the 2004 Olympic silver medalist in the shot put, and should Bilonog’s medal be stripped, Nelson stands to receive his gold medal eight years after the fact.
The Trailer: How did you hear about the news? Did any of the governing bodies contact you?
Adam Nelson: Nah, I haven’t heard anything from anybody officially. I got an email from a friend who’s a reporter, and he said ‘Have you heard about it?’ and I just read the article.
Honestly, this is not a new subject for me. In 2004, two days, three days after [the end of the Games], when I was still in the village in Athens, I heard that someone—they didn’t say who, but they thought it was Yuriy—had tested positive. Nothing happened. I got a call from a friend two weeks later who said he had been speaking to a credible source within the IOC [International Olympic Committee], and he said the same thing.
I’d love to say that if it’s not true, then someone owes Yuriy an apology. And if it is true I’ll certainly have a different take on it.
The Trailer: That’s supposed to be the early part of December, the IOC’s ruling?
AN: It’s December 5th, but the article that I read back in July, they were debating whether to expedite the hearings because there’s a statute of limitations of eight years, and it’s unclear when that expires. So that’s the other part: are these tests going to be within the statute of limitations?
The Trailer: You’ve been outspoken on the penalties for dopers for a long time, even saying they were committing fraud and should serve jail time. Does your past opinion still stand?
AN: So my personal opinions haven’t changed much—and my opinion, we’re too soft on doping. You either have a doping policy that’s absolute, or you don’t.
As I’ve learned more about the drug testing system, there are flaws there. In a recent study I read from 2010 there are around 270,000 samples collected worldwide, and of that, I think there was a one percent adverse findings rate [one percent that comes back positive]. I’ve been in sports long enough to know that everyone thinks the number of dopers is between five and 15 percent, depending on the sport, so one percent is still well undershooting what the realistic expectation is.
But that aside, my personal opinion about the drug testing is one [failed] test and you’re gone. We find ourselves making exceptions for people—there’s got to be some grey area where shit just happens. But at the end of the day I feel like we’re making a lot of exceptions for people who are repeatedly violating the nature of the rule.
The reason it’s so important to me is because it does not matter what I say, what I do, or how well I do on the field; the assumption of guilt will always follow me because I compete in the shot put. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never had a positive test—it means less now than it did 12 years ago. If you’ve read any of Tyler Hamilton’s book [a tell-all about doping in the Tour de France] and you know anything about the BALCO cases, not having a positive test does not mean you’re not cheating anymore. So I’m guilty by association and by look: I’ve got a thick neck, and I compete in the shot put, and I make a lot of noise when I compete, and sometimes I get angry.
I get frustrated when I see or hear about people who are taking drugs, and who are beating the system. They’re stealing from everyone in the sport. People like to say it’s a victimless crime. Hell, no, it’s not.
The Trailer: You mentioned that the Tour de France has suffered from this doping scandal. Are you saying people don’t want to watch a sport that they perceive to be tainted?
AN: No. Folks don’t want to watch a sport that operates under the guise that everybody in the field is competing cleanly. If you remove all of the drug testing from the sport and you say, ‘You guys can do whatever you want,’ I feel the public would love to see the freaks of nature compete.
When the X-Games first started in 1995 it was skateboarding and the freestyle biking. Now that doesn’t sell anymore. So they throw in some crazy super ramps. The next year that doesn’t sell anymore. People see things and they become accustomed to baseline performance; they want to see you push the threshold forward. So how do you do that with [track and field], which is a repetitive action? There are only so many roads you can take someone down.
I think the problem is we’ve already seen great performances, and we’ve seen what tainted performances can deliver. I had a conversation with a very successful sprinter, and she said one of the biggest challenges they have is that their world records are unbreakable—they were set in the peak of the drug era in the ‘80s. Now, she’s very successful, but that devalues her performances because she will never have a world record—it’s not possible unless you take drugs.
The Trailer: The day after the 2012 Olympics closed the IOC announced that women’s shot put gold medalist Nadzeya Ostapchuk of Belarus had popped on a drug test. Valerie Adams of New Zealand, the silver medalist, was awarded the gold medal. You’re in a similar situation.
AN: I wish I had a short answer for you, but I don’t. Valerie was robbed of hearing her national anthem, but she was given her medal at a time when it was relevant, and she’s still able to appreciate the moment and capitalize off her success and use that to do other things.
The 2004 Olympic Games were a pivotal moment in my life. I was a young man. That loss in those Games in that fashion pushed me to continue in the sport. If I’d won that medal I probably would have retired in 2004, and that would have been it.
But what people don’t understand is that winning a gold medal is the only medal that matters in this country from a financial standpoint in my event. After 2004 I went two years without a sponsor, not by choice, but by circumstance. They considered me old and not a winner. Period. In the U.S., being robbed of a gold medal, yeah, you miss out on the ultimate Olympic experience, to hear your national anthem played as your flag raises and you get that medal. But you miss out on the opportunity—the only opportunity you have in four years—to monetize your efforts. And that’s not an insignificant amount. I compete in a feast-or-famine event. I found myself after the 2004 Olympic Games without that support—in the famine cycle.
I’m sure Valerie laments the fact that she missed out on her national anthem and her flag being raised in London, but she still got her medal when it was relevant. Eight years after the fact, it would mean something, but it’s really just personal gratification. It’s bittersweet.
Listen to Josh Muxen’s uncut interview here:
Adam Nelson got a type of vindication in 2005 when, sponsorless, he earned gold at the World Championships. He hustles as the Vice President of the Track and Field Athletes Association. Of course he’s on Twitter.