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A Shot at Gold

Thanks to improved drug testing, a silver medalist may move up

U.S. shot-putter Adam Nelson first heard the whispers when he was still in Athens after taking the silver medal at the 2004 Olympics: Gold medalist Yuriy Bilonog of Ukraine had tested positive for steroids. Nelson heard the same talk over the years since, most recently last month, but held his hope in check and even chastised those who kept the story alive. "If the rumors aren't true," Nelson said on Nov. 28, "then someone owes Yuriy an apology."

The rumors were true. Last week, more than eight years after the Athens Games, improved testing of Bilonog's frozen urine samples taken at that competition showed the presence of a banned synthetic steroid. A spokesman for track's international governing body said last Friday that if Bilonog doesn't file an appeal within 21 days of the announcement of his positive test, Nelson will likely be declared the winner and the IOC will give him the gold medal. (Should Bilonog hold on to the original, a replacement will be minted.)

Nelson, 37, who also took silver at the 2000 Games, was deprived of celebrating victory that day in Olympia, at the site of the original Olympics. Yet last week he turned his focus forward, thanking those who made improved testing possible and calling for even more rigorous enforcement. "I applaud the IOC, and I applaud WADA [the World Anti-Doping Agency] for continuing this process," Nelson said. "To me it reinforces the Olympic ideal. But we all know there are countries in the world that are fully compliant with drug testing, and there are countries that are not."

With the news of his likely ascension to gold, Nelson, who had been in training, promptly retired. A graduate of Dartmouth with an M.B.A. from Virginia, Nelson said it would be "financially irresponsible" to keep living the life of the cash-strapped Olympian with a wife and two children. Yet as vice president of the nascent Track and Field Athletes Association, Nelson will remain a voice in the evolving arena of athletes' rights and responsibilities. "This medal was an important victory," he said, "but there's a lot of work left for the sport."

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