Athlete Prepares for Third Olympics

Adam Nelson heads into this weekend's track and field trials with more than an Olympic berth at stake. As he prepares to qualify for the Beijing Summer Games — his third Olympics — he knows it's probably his last chance for an elusive gold medal.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

For many of the country's best track and field athletes, the biggest competition of the year is not the Olympic Games; it's the trials to get into the Olympic Games. And those trials begin tomorrow in Eugene, Oregon. The top three finishers in each event qualify for China. And whether you're a world record holder or an unknown, the trials are your only ticket to Beijing.

Mr. ADAM NELSON (Shot-Putter): There's no real tolerance for a bad day, you know. You either perform or you don't.

SIEGEL: That's veteran shot putter Adam Nelson. He's going to his fourth Olympic trials. While experience helps, Nelson says he's feeling the pressure.

NPR's Tom Goldman continues our series on Nelson and his bid for Beijing.

TOM GOLDMAN: The U.S. track and field Olympic trials are tough, some say brutal. Consider the case of former decathlete Dan O'Brien.

(Soundbite of Reebok TV ad)

Unidentified Man: Dan won the decathlon in the world track and field championship. Dave won the decathlon at the Goodwill Games. This summer, they'll battle it out in Barcelona for the title of world's greatest athlete.

GOLDMAN: In 1992, a Reebok ad campaign had Dan O'Brien and his countryman Dave Johnson, slotted for a decathlon showdown at the Barcelona Olympics. One problem, O'Brien blew it at the Olympic trials and didn't qualify for Spain. Track and field athletes in other countries can get a buy to the Olympics based on great past performances. Two-time Olympic silver medalist Adam Nelson would benefit from a system like that.

Mr. NELSON: Sure, it would be great if they would have a favorite and protect a favorite and allow that person a buy. But how do you do that in an objective manner?

GOLDMAN: You do it the way it's done, says Nelson, who won the trial's competition in 2000 and 2004. He says he's ready for the pressure cooker again, although he's going in with a veteran's attitude.

Mr. NELSON: Actually, I had an interesting conversation with another track athlete at the airport the other day and he was asking if I was, you know, really fired up and ready to go. And I said, well, yeah, I'm fired up and ready to go but I'm not really obsessing about it yet. The obsessions, and really, the real excitement will start on Friday. And that's something that's changed over the last 10 years.

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

GOLDMAN: The trials take place at Eugene's Hayward Field. A little over two weeks ago, Nelson took a victory lap there after winning a competition with a huge throw of 72 feet, seven inches. Reese Hoffa finished second. Hoffa, Nelson and Christian Cantwell are the three pillars of what's called the golden age of U.S. men's shot put.

In recent years, they've alternately won major championships and traded places in the top three in world rankings. Hoffa said in Eugene that day, it makes the trials as competitive as the Olympics.

Mr. REESE HOFFA (Shot Putter): I think it's very unique. I don't think - I can't think of another country that has this kind of consistency in terms of having these many throwers that could take over the, more of the world. It's just whoever gets hot at the right time, basically.

GOLDMAN: At the trials, that could be someone other than Nelson, Hoffa and Cantwell. Nelson recalls how he came out of nowhere to win the 2000 trials. It's the beauty of the system and, for the favorites who get knocked out, the pain.

Tomorrow night, it begins with a preliminary round where throwers have to reach a set distance - 67 feet, seven inches - in order to qualify for Saturday's final. Normally, 12 make it to the finals, then a cut down to eight, and finally, three. At the end, if he's one of those still standing, only then will Adam Nelson start dreaming about China.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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Doping Scandals Cast Shadow on Athletic Success

There are two surefire ways to get Olympic shot-putter Adam Nelson riled up: put him in a competition, where his theatrics are well-known; or ask him about doping in his sport.

Nelson, a two-time Olympic silver medalist who is aiming for gold in Beijing this summer, says the temptation for athletes to dope is strong.

But, he says, he has avoided performance-enhancing drugs and finds audiences' suspicions frustrating.

Success Tempered with Skepticism

At the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., things were not looking good for Adam Nelson. It was his last meet before the Olympic trials, and he wanted a good showing. But his first three out of six throws were fouls.

Before his fourth throw, Nelson went through his usual routine — an "incredible hulk" transformation, without the green skin. He screamed, ripped off his top shirt and flung it to the side. He stormed into the throwing circle, where he let loose a doozy: Nelson flung the shot put 72 feet and 7 inches. A throw, he says, that is probably the tenth farthest of his career.

The crowd at Hayward Field celebrated, but moments like these in track and field today can be complicated. The thrills are mixed with skepticism.

Former Olympic star Marion Jones is in jail, and the BALCO doping scandal is still taking a toll on the sport. Nelson knows what he is up against, especially after a monster throw.

A Message to Fans

"Probably the most frustrating part about what I do is there's nothing I can do, nothing that I can tell you, no test that I can take that can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I'm 100 percent clean," he says.

He has taken about 120 drug tests, all negative, in the past 15 years. But he knows people are still suspicious.

It is a helpless feeling, trying to prove a negative. But Nelson, a 6-foot, 265-pound spark plug of a man, has been proactive on the subject. He tries to create an environment in which an athlete's integrity is not automatically suspect. He is on USA Track & Field's Zero Tolerance Committee, he named his official Web site "throwclean.com," and he is always willing to speak out.

"My personal belief about drugs in sport is that it's no different than fraud in the business world," Nelson says. "They are committing fraud and should serve jail time."

Keeping a Promise

But Nelson says it is not only the athletes who are to blame for the current situation. Some guilt, he says, lies with a society that demands superhuman results on the playing field.

He also admits that there are gray areas, like his use of the controversial supplement creatine. Creatine is not banned, but some have said it is a performance-enhancing substance. Nelson, who is smaller than many of his behemoth rivals, admits he has thought about banned drugs as well.

"I think it's natural to have those kinds of questions," he says. "What would give me an edge? Well, probably steroids. Probably growth hormone."

Nelson says the reason he has stayed away from drugs may not appease the doubters, but he is proud of it. Long ago, he promised his dad he would not dope. It is a promise, he says, he has kept for 20 years.

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