He missed out on that moment when he ended up with a silver that day – behind a winner who was recently exposed as a drug cheat.
The International Olympic Committee executive board just disqualified four athletes whose Athens doping samples were retested earlier this year and came back positive for steroids, including shot put gold medalist Yuriy Bilonog, of Ukraine.
There’s been no decision on whether the medals will be reallocated and, really, Nelson doesn’t care as much as he does about this: A cheater got caught.
“It’s not just a victory for me, but a victory for the system,” Nelson said. “I can’t dwell on what happened or didn’t happen eight years ago. I can only look forward to what the next phase in life brings. At least now I can do that with a gold medal.”
Or so he hopes.
The IOC said it will ask the International Association of Athletics Federations to get the four medals back and readjust the results and rankings from the Athens Games.
Until then, no actions will be taken regarding the medals.
Medal or no medal, though, he knows he’s the rightful winner.
Now if he could only locate his silver medal, just in case he is upgraded. Nelson tucked it away in a sock drawer years ago and thinks his wife might have moved it into the attic.
Nelson just recently retired from competition and is living in Athens, Ga., where he’s opening a sports performance center and volunteering his time to help raise awareness for rare diseases.
“Hearing those amazing stories and personal triumphs – and the losses – that really puts things in perspective,” Nelson said. “It’s been an inspiration.”
He found out about the decision to strip Bilonog on his way out of town Wednesday. Ever since, his phone has been buzzing with well-wishers.
“It’s a little bit strange to be congratulated on something you did eight years ago that’s finally being recognized today,” Nelson said.
Nelson still has sour feelings about the way competition played out in Athens.
Nelson and Bilonog finished with the same best throw, but the Ukrainian was declared the winner because his second-best attempt was longer. It was the first time an Olympic field event was decided by a second-best mark.
“I didn’t know there was a tiebreaking rule,” Nelson said. “I found out on my last throw that I had to throw it farther to win, because he tied me on his last throw. And I had a big foul that I thought wasn’t a foul.
“That was the hardest part. You have that immediate elation, ‘Gosh, I crushed that throw’ to the red flag going up and the realization that you’ve fouled a fifth throw and you lost gold. That was a pretty difficult thing to swallow at that time.”
As for lingering animosity toward Bilonog, well, Nelson said he made the choice and has to live with the consequences.
“There were a lot of people affected by this person’s actions,” the 37-year-old said. “He should’ve had the personal integrity to say, ‘I’m going to do this clean.’
“At some point in his life, he made a decision not to.”
Just like Nelson made the decision to compete clean. He had no choice.
When Nelson was a teenager, he was offered performance-enhancing drugs while training in an Atlanta gym. He promptly told his father.
“My dad said, ‘You’re always going to have the temptation to cheat. But if you do, I’m going to disown you,’” Nelson said. “As the conversation evolved, it culminated with me saying, ‘Dad, I swear I’ll never do performance-enhancing drugs.’
“That is one of my proudest achievements in the sport – trying to attain No. 1 in world and doing it the right way. It can be done.”
Asked if he thought about celebration plans should he one day be presented with the gold medal, Nelson paused.
“You won’t see tears of joy. I probably won’t ever hear the national anthem or see it rise over the stadium in ancient Olympia. Those are things I missed out on,” Nelson said. “Maybe I’ll build a flag pole and hang it from there for a little while – just to do something over the top.”