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.
At the tail end of the news stories about a Yemeni immigrant who tried to break into the cockpit of a San Francisco bound American Airlines flight, comes the name Bill Nieder. The seventy-seven year old Nieder was one of three passengers, who along with flight attendants subdued the potential attacker. This was not the first time Nieder has made the news.
In high school at Lawrence High in Kansas, he was a prep All-American in football and a star on the track & field team. He became the first person to throw the high school twelve pound shot put over 60 feet, putting it 60’9.75” in 1952. In football he played on both offense (center) and defense (middle linebacker) and was recruited to play at the University of Kansas. But in his first game in 1953, he suffered a football career-ending knee injury, that almost required amputation.
The injury prompted him to put all his energies into track & field. He became the first collegiate athlete to throw the sixteen pound shot put over 60 feet. He was the 1955 NCAA Champion in the shot put, and as a college senior won the silver medal at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. He also competed in the discus, where his Kansas teammate was Al Oerter, who would go on to win four Olympic gold medals.
1960 would be a memorable year for Nieder. Three times that year he set the World Record, including 20.06 meters (65’10”) on August 12, 1960. However, Nieder had an off-day at the United States Olympic Trials and placed fourth, making him only an alternate for the US Olympic team to Rome. Nieder kept competing and was consistently beating the three shot putters who had qualified for the Olympic team. When teammate Dave Davis suffered a minor injury, Coach Payton Jordan did not hesitate to put Nieder on the team as Davis’ replacement. With one throw left in the Olympic Final, Nieder was in second place trailing Parry O’Brien’s 62’8.5” mark. On his last throw Nieder threw the shot 64’6.75” to win the gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics, leading a 1-2-3 American sweep with fellow future Hall of Famers O’Brien and Dallas Long.
That threesome of Nieder, O’Brien, and Long dominated the shot put for twelve years. Between May 1953 and May 1965, the shot put world record was bettered twenty times, each time by either O’Brien (ten times), Long (seven times), or Nieder (three times). During that period these three would improve the world record over eight feet, from 59’0.5” to 67’10”.
Soon after Rome, Nieder retired from track & field and took up boxing. In his one and only bout he was knocked out by Jim Wiley. Sports Illustrated described Nieder in his venture into boxing as a “little lost puppet.”
After retiring from athletics, Nieder did not slow down. He worked for 3M and was instrumental in the development of artificial turf used on fields in place of grass. In 1968 he sold the first the first synthetic track surface to be used in the Olympics to the Mexico City Olympic organizers. In 1973 he founded Marathon Engineering Corporation, which specialized in high-quality safety padding for the correctional and psychiatric markets (the “rubber” room in a mental ward).
Nieder has been married to his wife Sharon for over thirty years. The couple was on their way home to Angel’s Camp after a four month cruise around the world on the “Love Boat,” the ship that the 1970’s television series was based on. They were sitting in first class when a man ran down the aisle screaming “Allahu akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” and then began pounding on the cockpit door. That’s when Nieder sprang into action, helping to subdue the potential attacker.