Confessions of an Olympic and World Champion Shot Putter: Part 2

Adam Nelson

This is not an article.  This is series of observations and anecdotes about sports, money, and drugs that I’ve collected over the past 20 years.  I hope the collective works when they’re  published on this site will facilitate a discussion on some of the challenges we face as a profession and as an amateur sport. 

My Experiences with PEDs

I was first offered steroids in 1990 when I was 16 years old.  I was training at a real hole in the wall gym – not one of the big box spas.  Going there felt like walking into a rough honky-tonk bar except instead of the bikers, cowboys and hookers drinking cheap liquor, you’d find hardcore power lifters, body builders and strippers lifting insane weights.  Socializing was heavily frowned upon.  This was the sub-culture of power and strength sports at the time – big tatted up men who probably worked as “collectors” and whatever accompanied those types of people.  It’s the culture that a lot of crossfitters try to duplicate.  Trust me when I say this:  It cannot (and probably should not) be duplicated.  Okay…it wasn’t quite that bad.  But it was a place you could get a great lift, listen to loud music, spit on the floor, or whatever you needed to do to get your rep, and have 15 other lifters stop their workout to cheer you on in a heavy lift.  It was awesome.

At first, I went to this gym with my dad to learn Olympic lifting.  The owner of this particular gym was John.  John is a truly gifted Olympic lifting coach.  He’s exceptionally bright.  John taught me proper pulling from the floor.  I was never good at catching the weights.  He encouraged me to pursue Olympic lifting as the core of my sports training.  I didn’t bite.  I enjoyed the powerlifts too much.  And we didn’t get tested in the clean at the beginning of football season.  We tested our bench and squat.  Johns advice was absolutely spot on, but I had read too many articles about bodybuilding to appreciate the importance of Olympic lifts at the time.

I went to the gym one day for an upper body workout.  I was incline benching, struggling with sets of 10.  At the end of my workout a guy approached me praising my performance, but he noticed I was struggling a bit towards the end.  He asked what I was training for and seemed genuinely interested in my answers.  After a few minutes he shifted the conversation towards nutrition and supplements.  If you think supplements are uncontrolled now, you can only imagine how they were over 20 years ago.  Red flags went up as the conversation shifted towards steroids.  John saw the guy talking to me and asked him to his office.  I never saw the guy again after that.

Positives out of a Positive

In 1988 Ben Johnson tested positive in what will likely always be one of the most widely publicized drug busts in sports.  That incident sparked widespread debate over the prevalence of drugs in Olympic sports and the need for a drug-testing program.  In my house my dad used it as an opportunity to discus steroids.  He didn’t mince words.  He spoke to my brother and me like we were adults.  I don’t remember what exactly was said.  I wish I could.  My dad’s a bit of a poet at times.   The gist was simple:  yes, steroids work, but if you use them I will disown you.   I remember returning home from the gym that day and telling my dad what happened.  He told me how proud he was.  He also said the longer you pursue sports the more opportunities will challenge your values.  Know what you believe.  Hold strong to those beliefs.  And own your decisions.

Accusations and Encounters

In 1994 the head football coach at Dartmouth College called me into his office. Coach Lyons asked me point blank “Have you been eating any blue cookies?”  Clearly, I didn’t pick up on the reference, because I answered, “Blue cookies?  No, Coach.  Just whatever my mom made for dinner.”  Honestly, I couldn’t think of any blue food that I liked.  It was after I left his office that I realized what he was asking.  He asked because at 19 years old I benched 465, squatted a comfortable 600lbs, and ran a 4.7 40 yard dash at 247lbs.  These numbers were considerably off my bests from the springtime, because I was in a recovery phase after winning the World Juniors in the shot put late that summer.  I simply hadn’t had enough training time to put up great testing results.

The following spring one of my very good friends informed of his decision to take steroids over the summer.  He’d already set everything up.  Thing is I think he told me because he knew I wouldn’t let him.  We had big fight about it.  I remember throwing him against a tree and telling him “I will show up at your house every day.  I will beat the crap out of you every single day until that day comes that you can overpower me.  When your parents ask me why I’m doing this, I will tell them exactly why.  You make the decision.  Remember I know where you live and you know I’ll do exactly what I just told you.”  My friend probably never had a shot at the NFL because of that conversation.

In 1998 I moved to California to train at Stanford.  It was after a competition at Stanford that an older thrower called me over to introduce me to his friend.  His friend sported a thin mustache.  I’ve never been a fan of mustaches on most men.  They usually come across as cheesy and it puts me on guard.  The man was genuinely polite and very interested in talking to me about some the cool stuff he was doing for elite and professional athletes.  His company was performing complete metabolic panels on athletes to determine nutritional deficiencies.   Then, he could prescribe a diet that would “naturally optimize hormone levels.”  “Of course over time, they might suggest specific supplements.  Don’t worry though.  We make sure none of our products are on any banned substance list. “  He offered up his card with an assurance that he understood the plight of throwers and, if, I did choose to visit him they would hook me up for a free screen.  When he left, I looked at his card – Bay Area Lab Corp, Victor Conte.  I never made the trip to see him.  Darn…and it wouldn’t have cost me anything.

Three years later I found myself at competitions in Switzerland.  Seriously, one of my favorite competitions in history used to happen in the small town of Rudlingen.  Set in the mountains outside Zurich, you cannot find a more beautiful spot for competition.  The competition took place on a field carved out of the side of a mountain.  It was a throws only competition featuring the shot put, discus, 5k discus, 50kg stone throw, hammer, and javelin.

I woke up early the morning of the competition – maybe 5:30am.  We were staying in some dorm rooms.  There was a small deck off the back of each room.  I walked outside, looked to my right, and saw 320lb man standing in his tighty whitey’s plunging a syringe into his thigh, which was resting on the rail of the deck.  What’s the appropriate response in this situation?  Hmmm..now there’s something you don’t see everyday?  Before I could react the man said “it’s just vitamin b-supplements, so don’t go spreading any rumors.”  I nodded, walked inside and locked my door.  Several months later Kevin was banned for THG during the Balco investigation.  I have no idea what was in that syringe.

That was the last time I remember seeing drugs in this sport – almost 12 years ago to the day.  The advancements in drug testing and changes in cultural acceptance of PEDs in sports have pushed a lot of this illegal world further underground.  Drug dealers of any sort are brilliant at cultivating the market.   They target your friends, your family, anyone in your network that can get them an introduction when your guard is down.  These people aren’t your friends.  They aren’t doing you a service.  They are trying to exploit you.   All it takes is one time for them to catch you with your guard down to change your life.  That’s what drug dealers do.

We are the Solution!

I was lucky.  My social network and my early coaching influences supported my family values.  Those facts alone allowed me time solidify beliefs before they were tested.  Not every athlete is as fortunate as I was to have a consistent family unit, to grow up without any real concerns for food or safety, or to experience a world-class education from high school through graduate school.  I cannot begin to imagine the challenges that many of my peers faced when growing up, but I also cannot imagine being able to make these types of decisions without the experiences I had growing up.  That points to a real failure on behalf of the anti-doping agencies.

You have created rules without the input from a broad group of neither athletes nor an independent athletes’ association.  You have created rules that facilitate your mission statement without consideration for the population you are testing.  As a result, your tests suck and those you are trying to protect don’t appreciate the service you think you provide.

I’m tired of seeing generation after generations of athletes repeat the same mistakes.  I’m tired of rules that are set to shape a more rigid drug-testing program rather than facilitate discussion and educate the next generation of athletes.  “Just say no” never worked for those that didn’t have my same experiences.  Drug-testing alone won’t work.  You have to address the underlying value system that fails.  Address the cause as much as detect the results.

Nobody I knew espoused the virtues of cheating or taking shortcuts of any kind.   Those family values allowed me to navigate a world that told everyone – at least in the 1990’s – that you have to do drugs to compete.   Athletes aren’t perfect.  We may not live up to the Olympic ideals off the fields of competition, but this is one area where we have to be perfect.  You’ve pushed the responsibility of compliance solely on to the athlete, but you’ve never engaged the athlete in real dialogue about the best ways to address this problem.  Don’t see us as the problem.  See us as the solution! Engage!

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