A big, ROUND man stood crying joyfully in a cold summer rain, far from home, a gold medalist at last after so many silvers. His lower lip quivered, and his blue eyes surrendered droplets onto the grassy floor of Helsinki's old Olympic Stadium, and then Adam Nelson grimaced in the way that grown men grimace when they are embarrassed at bawling like babies.
Minutes earlier on the night of Saturday, Aug. 6, Nelson had wrapped up the shot put competition at the 10th World Outdoor Track and Field Championships. As the final thrower, he was obligated by a sense of sportsmanship to take his last toss, even though he'd clinched the championship. Yet Nelson could barely lift the 16-pound shot as emotions overwhelmed him.
"I couldn't find my composure," Nelson recalls. "All the memories just came flooding back.''
The tale of the struggling Olympic athlete has been told and retold with such quadrennial fervor that a truly warm story gets swallowed up like just another prefabricated fairy tale. Nelson's victory in Helsinki, achieved on his first throw of the competition on the first night of the championships in front of an audience of 32,000, was as genuine as blood and sweat.
Four times since ascending to the top level of international throwers in 2000, Nelson, an Atlanta native with a Dartmouth degree in government, had finished second in major championships. Most painfully, at the Olympics in the summer of 2004, competing on the sacred grounds of ancient Olympia in Greece, Nelson finished second to Yuriy Bilonog of Ukraine on a crushing tiebreaker. (Their longest throws were identical; Bilonog's second-best was longer than Nelson's.)
Two months later Adam and Laci Nelson, newly wed after two years together, sat in the backyard of their home in Athens, Ga., and talked about his career. Adam was ready to quit. "I can make a lot more money doing something else," he told Laci.
She wouldn't let him do it. "You have more to accomplish," Laci said. She put her plans for law school on hold and took a job teaching first grade in Athens.
Nelson decided to carry on. Shortly afterward he received a fresh four-year contract offer from one of his main sponsors, Nike, which merely mirrored his initial contract from 2000, tendered when he had never won a medal of any kind. Nelson was insulted and turned it down, leaving himself with no financial support beyond prize and appearance money. He sold his services on eBay and signed a one-month, $12,000 deal with MedivoxRX Technologies to advertise Rex--the Talking Bottle, an aid for the blind and for senior citizens who have difficulty reading labels. (His gold in Helsinki was worth considerably more: $60,000 in prize money.)
When Nelson heaved his winning throw, Laci was driving back to Athens from a teaching seminar in Atlanta. Her brother, Beau Braswell, was watching the webcast of the championships and text-messaged Laci in her car: ADAM OPENS HUGE 21.73 METERS. �Further texts followed, tracing Nelson's victory. Laci drove through tears of joy, wondering what other drivers must be thinking. Nelson laments to this day that she was not in Helsinki to share a victory that was as much hers as his.
It was a performance that meant as much to track and field as it did to either of the Nelsons. While many sports have been bruised by the steroid revelations of the last three years, track has suffered longer and more deeply than most. (Is there a more notorious name in the annals of performance enhancement than disgraced 1988 Olympic 100-meter gold medalist Ben Johnson?) It was sprint coach Trevor Graham who sent the designer-steroid-laced syringe to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in June 2003, setting in motion the epic BALCO scandal and confirming suspicions that track gurus are on the cutting edge of pharmaceutical advancement.