I love track and field. But being a fan of the sport can be tough at times. The sport is shrouded in allegations of performance enhancing drug use. The professional runner most near and dear to my heart, Shannon Rowbury, quite possibly was robbed of a podium finish at the 2012 Olympics. Shannon faces constant random drug tests by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). The number of tests she has taken is public record, she was tested eleven times in 2015 and four times so far in 2016.
Shannon’s training group, coached by Alberto Salazar, has not escaped allegations either. I know Shannon better than most people and I am very confident that Shannon competes clean.
The most frustrating part about being a track & field fan are the questions about cheating. Was the record I just witnessed legit or the result of performance enhancing drugs? Did the clean athletes place or were they pushed out of the medals by athletes who are doping? The fact of the matter is that in the sport of track & field, there seem to be constant questions about athletes and even whole countries and federations cheating (e.g. Russia, Kenya, and a group of athletes coached by Jama Aden).
All I can do is stay positive and be optimistic in my hope for a clean sport.
It’s because of this feeling that the “bad guys” are stealing medals from the “good guys” and getting away with it, that I found the special ceremony before the start of the 2016 Olympic Trials competition to be quite meaningful. It was a medal ceremony for Adam Nelson. Nelson was receiving his gold medal for the shot put competition….from the 2004 Athens Olympics!
In Athens in 2004, the final results were Ukraine’s Yuriy Bilonoh winning the gold and Nelson the silver. The competition itself was quite dramatic. Nelson threw 21.16 meters on his first throw and that mark had him in the lead until the last round of the competition. Bilonoh was in second with a mark of 21.15 (just one centimeter behind Nelson), which he threw on both his first and second attempts. Nelson, meanwhile, fouled all of his remaining throws after the opening 21.16. And in the sixth round, Bilonoh improved that one centimeter to 21.16 to tie Nelson. With the tie-breaker being best second-best throw, Bilonoh won the gold.
However, over eight years later, in December 2012, a re-test of Bilonoh’s urine sample turned up positive for performance enhancing drugs and he was stripped of the gold medal. In the spring of 2013, Nelson was named the gold medalist. USATF recognized him at the 2013 USA Championships. He received a wreath, they played the national anthem, and he took a victory lap. All that was missing was the actual gold medal. That didn’t get into his hands until later that summer and when he received it, it was without much fanfare, at a Burger King in the Atlanta airport.
Fast forward another three years, to July 1, 2016, almost twelve years since the men’s shot put competition on August 18, 2004 in Athens. Nelson, now 40 years old, finally gets the whole package – a medal ceremony with the gold medal presented to him and the playing of the Star Spangled Banner in front of an appreciative audience. The same day as this medal ceremony, Nelson, now 40 years old, competed in the 2016 Olympic Trials. In the morning he placed in the top 12 to qualify for the men’s shot put final. Then came the medal ceremony. Shortly after that, he was down on the track competing, where he came in seventh with a throw of 20.17 meters.
Nelson is one of the good guys in the sport. He has been a big advocate for a clean sport and for athletes’ rights. He takes on the persona of a madman when he throws, screaming and throwing down his shirt when he gets into the shot put ring to throw. But outside of the ring, I am told, he is one of the nicest guys around. His warm-up shirt at the Trials said “World’s Greatest Dad” on it with a unicorn and rainbow. This must be a man that doesn’t take himself too seriously and can have fun even while competing at the Olympic Trials. The crowd at the Olympic Trials recognized Nelson with a big ovation as he got ready for his final throw.
Like I said, being a fan of track & field can be challenging. It can be hard not to throw up your hands in despair with all that seems wrong in the sport, especially in regards to doping. But moments like this one with Adam Nelson do restore my faith that, at least sometimes, the bad guys get caught and the good guys get their proper due.
A couple weeks ago Merlene Ottey anchored the Slovenian 4X100 meter relay team at the European Championships. While this particular item may not be all that newsworthy, a closer examination of the details shows why I am blogging about this.
Merlene Ottey is 50 years old.
This race was thirty years and three days after she ran in the 4X100 relay at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. It was on the same track in Barcelona that she won a bronze medal in the Olympic 200 meters eighteen summers ago.
Born in Jamaica on May 10, 1960, the “Queen of Track,” as many call her, is still competing one half century later. Ottey’s best times may be behind her but they are very good times. Her 10.74 in the 100 meters ranks her sixth of all-time. Even better is her 21.64 in the 200 meters, which ranks her third.
Perhaps the only thing more impressive than her personal bests in the 100 and 200 meters is her longevity. Not just longevity as in participating in the sport, but in competing at a high level. She has competed in seven Olympic Games (every Olympics from 1980-2004), she just missed the time standard for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and is talking about competing at the 2012 London Olympics at the ripe age of fifty-two.
Along the way she has collected more medals than some countries. She has earned twenty-three medals at the Olympics and Outdoor World Championships in the 100 meters, 200 meters, and 4X100 relay. At the World Championships in Tokyo (1991), Stuttgart (1993), and Gottenburg (1995) and the Olympics in Atlanta (1996) she medaled in all three of her specialty events. That’s twelve medals in four major championships in a six year period! Her last international championship medal is a bronze in the 100 meters from the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Ottey initially placed fourth in this race but after Marion Jones admitted to steroid use, some nine years after the actual race, Ottey was elevated from fourth to third place.
When she won the gold medal at the 1995 World Championships in the 200 meters at the age of thirty-five she became the oldest World Championship gold medalist. When she won the bronze at the 1997 World Championships in the 200 meters at the age of thirty-seven she became the oldest World Championship medalist. When she helped Jamaica to the bronze medal in the 4X100 relay at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney she became the oldest Olympic medalist at the age of forty. At the European Championships this summer she set a new record as the oldest participant in European Championship history. Another stat: Ottey had already competed at two Olympics when Usain Bolt was born in 1986.
Even though she is fifty, Ottey is still going strong. She recorded a still pending Women’s 50-54 year old world record in the 100 meters last July. Her time of 11.67 easily bettered the previous record of 12.50. Ottey already owns the world record for women 35-39 (10.74), 40-44 (11.09), and 45-49 (11.34) years old. An 11.67 in the 100 meters for a fifty year old woman is worth 105.12 points on the age-graded scale. As a thirty-nine year old male, I would need to run the mile in 3:42.4 to score 105.12 points.
Ottey’s career has not been without controversy. In 1999 she was banned from competition for testing positive for an illegal drug. This caused her to withdraw from the 1999 World Championships in Seville. She was subsequently cleared by the Jamaican Amateur Athletic Association (JAAA) and then later by the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), which paved the way for her to compete at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
However her selection to the Jamaican team for the 2000 Olympics was also filled with controversy. Ottey was a late replacement for Peta-Gay Dowdie in the 100 meters, which caused ill-feelings amongst the Jamaican team and even caused a brief protest by some of the athletes in the Olympic Village.
Shortly after the 2000 Olympics, Ottey changed citizenship to Slovenia. Now when she competes in international competitions she represents Slovenia.
If this doesn’t give you hope and inspiration that you can still do it, no matter what your age, I don’t know what will.