Shot-Putter Nelson Makes Third Olympics

Shot-putter Adam Nelson has been picked to participate in the Olympics for a third time. In the final round of the shot put in Eugene, Ore., this weekend, he took third place with a 20.89-meter toss. Nelson is a two-time Olympic silver medalist.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Adam Nelson is in. The shot-putter is going to the Olympics. We've been following Adam Nelson's bid to compete in the Summer Games for the third time. As NPR's Tom Goldman reports, this weekend, at the U.S. Track and Field Trials in Oregon, Nelson qualified - just barely.

(Soundbite of cheering, applause)

TOM GOLDMAN: Everything seemed perfect Saturday. The weather was hot, the sky blue, the 20,000 track fans who packed Eugene's Hayward Field were revved up. Adam Nelson felt great, ready to put on a show. Once the men's shot-put competition started, the crowd broke into rhythmic applause each time Nelson, a fan favorite, stepped into the throwing ring. But on this day, it wasn't helping.

(Soundbite of cheering, applause)

Unidentified Announcer: A foul for Nelson. We will take you back to the track, where we're going to…

GOLDMAN: Halfway through the finals, Nelson was in fourth place. The top three qualify for the Olympics. The track announcer said over the P.A. system if the event ended now, Adam Nelson would be the odd man out.

Did you hear that?

Mr. ADAM NELSON (Olympic Shot-putter): I did hear that. But it was a good thing, actually, because it really irritated me and got me somewhat focused and motivated to throw farther.

Unidentified Announcer: Nelson into second.

(Soundbite of cheering, applause)

Unidentified Announcer: Now here's Cantwell.

GOLDMAN: Adam Nelson muscled out a throw of 68 feet, six-and-a-half inches. That would be the one to ultimately place him third and get him on the Olympic team. Earlier this month, at a track meet in the same stadium, he threw four feet farther. To the media afterwards, Nelson said he was disappointed in his performance. He said he couldn't find his rhythm. When he met up with his coach, Carrie Lane, a quick interaction said it all.

Mr. NELSON: That was ugly.

Ms. CARRIE LANE (Shot-put Coach): Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOLDMAN: The shot-put is a power event, but six-foot, 265-pound Adam Nelson always has relied less on power and more on technique and timing. Saturday, he said, that timing was off, as he tried to pick up speed and spin through the throwing ring.

Mr. NELSON: I just felt like I wasn't moving, and if I don't continue to accelerate and move across the ring, it's brutal. I haven't had too many of those days in the last few months, but unfortunately, this was one of those days.

GOLDMAN: Nelson couldn't answer why. He did say this Olympic trials competition, in comparison to the ones he won in 2000 and 2004, was extraordinarily stressful. There was a lot of talk beforehand about the big three: Nelson, a two-time Olympic silver medalist, Reese Hoffa, the reigning world champion and Christian Cantwell, this year's world indoor champ. They were expected to qualify, and Nelson told reporters he definitely felt pressure, at one point thumping his chest to illustrate the point.

Mr. NELSON: I got into that ring for the first throw, and it was like man, this feels like my first time in an Olympic trials. My heart was just going thump, thump, and I had to sort of settle myself down and take a couple of deep breaths.

GOLDMAN: Reese Hoffa also felt the pressure and also calmed himself, with better results. He won, but didn't bother with a victory celebration, as he often does.

Mr. REESE HOFFA (Olympic Shot-putter): I guess when you actually make an Olympic team, you really don't think about doing anything except for taking a deep breath in relief to know that you probably made one of the hardest teams in the world to make.

GOLDMAN: Cantwell finished second, so the big three, combined weight 880 pounds, will go to Beijing. Cantwell and Hoffa threw well. Nelson, by his own admission, got lucky, but there's already talk of a medals sweep in China. Nelson will do his part because, he said, what happened Saturday won't happen at the Olympics. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Eugene.

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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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