It is, Adam Nelson said Wednesday, bittersweet.
It has been more than eight years since they held the shot put competition at the Athens Games, and on Wednesday the International Olympic Committee announced that the winner, Ukraine’s Yuriy Bilonog, was now disqualified.
Nelson was the 2004 silver medalist. Now he stands to be moved up to gold.
Bilonog’s doping sample was among those re-tested earlier this year, the IOC said, and found positive — along with three others — for steroids. A fifth case remains pending.
That’s good, of course, because the IOC has done the right thing by Nelson and all athletes who compete cleanly.
But it took eight years-plus to get there. That raises fundamental questions about whether justice delayed is justice denied. If Nelson, already a silver medalist in Sydney in 2000, had been a gold medalist in Athens in 2004 for all these years, too, maybe he would have enjoyed considerably more marketing opportunity. Stands to reason, right?
Meanwhile, the circumstances of the Bilonog case — and the three others, also field athletes, as in track and field — underscore an essential, and ongoing, truth about Olympic sport.
Doping remains a scourge that strikes at the very core of track and field. Other sports, too, in particular cycling and weightlifting.
The 2004 Athens Olympics yielded a record haul of doping cases. The new tests lift the number to 31. Eleven of those 31 were medal winners. Three of those 11 were gold medalists.
Meanwhile, the IOC on Wednesday put off any decision in the case of Lance Armstrong’s bronze medal from the Sydney 2000 road time trial. It said it needs cycling’s governing body, UCI, to formally notify Armstrong first that he has been disqualified in Sydney amid the extensive report from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that detailed Armstrong’s doping and prompted the loss of his seven Tour de France titles from 1999-2005.
In the 2004 cases, the matter of weightlifter Oleg Perepechenov of Russia remains under study.
Barring an unusual turn, the other four cases would now appear to be settled.
And it is abundantly obvious — and has to be pointed out — that all five involve athletes from Russia or countries of the former Soviet Union.
Two of the other four are women: discus thrower Irina Yatchenko of Belarus and shot putter Svetlana Krivelyova of Russia, both bronze medalists. Krivelyova is also the 1992 gold medalist in the event.
The other two: hammer throw silver medalist Ivan Tsikhan of Belarus and the Ukrainian Bilonog.
In the United States, we have assuredly endured our doping scandals — the Armstrong matter, most recently, and before that, the BALCO matter.
But so — at least in Olympic sport — is USADA’s effort to level the playing field. Can the same be said elsewhere? With conviction?
“This particular episode reveals something athletes have known for a long time,” Nelson said, explaining a moment later, “”There are more compliant sports and more compliant athletes,” meaning compliant with best-practices doping protocols.
He said, “The next focus of the drug-testing organizations ought to be to go into those countries and cultures where drugs are not vilified or regulated well, and say, ‘If you want to compete in our Olympic sports, change this.’
“This, to me, is a disgrace on multiple levels. And it’s something that could be avoided if more Olympic sports or organizations would adopt the policies we follow in our country.”
The shot put was one of the capstone events of those 2004 Games, held not in Athens but on the grounds at Olympia, where the ancient Games began in 776 B.C.; the 2004 event marked the first time women threw on the field.
As evidence of how doping has corrupted the field events in particular, and why clean athletes such as Nelson and another American, Jillian Camarena-Williams, the 2011 world championships bronze medalist in the shot, deserve applause for fighting the good fight:
The women’s winner in 2004, Russia’s Irina Korzhanenko — who threw the shot 21.06 meters, or 69 feet, 1 inch — tested positive afterward for the steroid stanozolol. That’s the same steroid Ben Johnson tested positive for at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.
As David Wallechinsky notes in his authoritative history of the Olympic Games, this marked Korzhanenko’s second doping ban. Her first came at the 1999 world indoor championships, which cost her a silver medal and kept her from the 2000 Sydney Games.
Facing a lifetime ban because of the second positive test, Korzhanenko not only refused to give back the medal but was named a coach for the Russian track and field team, Wallechinsky writes.
Again, the third-place winner, Krivelyova, was busted Wednesday.
The fourth-place 2004 finisher, Nadezhda Ostapchuk of Belarus, the 2005 world champ, won the shot put at the London 2012 Games. Shortly after becoming Olympic champion, she tested positive for the steroid metenolone. Valerie Adams of New Zealand, the 2008 Beijing winner, was upgraded from London silver to gold.
On the men’s side in Olympia in 2004, Nelson took the lead on his first throw, 21.16, or 69-5 1/4. Then, though, he fouled on each of his next four tries.
Through five rounds, Bilonog remained one centimeter, 21.15, behind. On his sixth and final throw, Bilonog matched Nelson, going 21.16, 69-5 1/4.
The rules: ties to be broken by comparing each athlete’s second-best throw.
Through five rounds, Nelson had no second-best throw. He had only those four fouls.
On his sixth try, Nelson threw 21.30. But it, too, was ruled a foul. Nelson protested — but video showed Nelson had, indeed, fouled.
Bilonog was declared the winner, the first time in Olympic history a gold medal had been awarded on the basis of a second-best mark.
Bilonog’s doping samples, re-tested in 2012, at the World Anti-Doping Agency-accredited laboratory in Lausanne, Switzerland, turned up evidence of the steroid oxandrolone. The IOC was informed July 13 of the positive test on Bilonog’s A sample; his B sample was split into two parts; those samples turned up positive as well in tests done Nov. 1 and 2.
In Europe, according to no less an expert than Victor Conte, the figure at the center of the BALCO affair, the steroid goes by the name “Annavar.” Here in the States. it is known as “Oxandrin.”
Conte would know. When he was himself arrested, agents found 269 Oxandrin pills, in three square-shaped bottles, in his storage locker. Each pill, 2.5 milligrams, is shaped like a little football.
You take “quite a few at a time, for toning purposes,” men as many as 20 a day, Conte said.
Oxandrin is hardly a newly discovered steroid. The obvious question: how did Bilonog get away with it in 2004 only to be found out now?
Since the IOC and WADA are not giving away secrets, it’s speculation. But the ready answer would seem to be along the lines of how Johnson was caught in 1988 — testers probably inventing a technique for being able to measure at lower concentration than before.
“That would be my gut response to you,” Conte said, adding a moment later, “What they couldn’t see and couldn’t detect in 2004 they can now.”
What that likely means in practical terms:
It takes time for steroids to clear out of one’s system. That’s called “tapering.” If you were an athlete or coach, and knew it took, say, 14 days for a certain steroid to wash out instead of 10 because of the sensitivity of the testing instrument, you’d plan accordingly.
But if you didn’t know how many days were at issue, or if that number changed years after you’d already implemented your plan, then — like Yuri Bilonog — you would suddenly find yourself a gold medalist no longer.
“I would be thrilled if they would award me the gold medal,” Adam Nelson said.
There wouldn’t be the thrill of standing atop the podium at ancient Olympia. Even so, he said quietly, “I would have some small celebration.”