Tt was a hot ticket, yet it was free, and more than 27,000 fortunate enough to gain entry swarmed the Ancient Stadium of Olympia for a
once-in-a-lifetime thrill on a scorching and unforgettable Wednesday.
It was more of a festival than an Olympic Games competition when Olympia, a quaint village of about 2,000 inhabitants, swelled with tourists eager for
the stadium's first significant competition in thousands of years.
And when it was completed, Yuriy Bilonog of Ukraine and Irina Korzhanenko of Russia earned the laurels as shot put champions of the 28th modern
Olympic Games, although the men's title was in doubt until the final throw.
Hopes for a sweep by the U.S. men ended when Reese Hoffa did not qualify during the morning session, attended by an estimated 9,000. A late-arriving
crowd of 18,000 attended the afternoon finals, including busloads of dignitaries from Athens.
They saw Bilonog hold off American favorite Adam Nelson, who fouled on his final attempt and had to settle for his second Olympic silver because of
more penalties. Each finished with bests of 69 feet, 5 1/4 inches in what was the tightest shot put competition in Olympic history.
Nelson had led the entire competition, but Bilonog's final throw tied Nelson for best of the day. Nelson had one last chance to win and unleashed a
golden toss, but he was called for his fifth consecutive foul.
Bilonog was declared champion because his next-best throw was better: 69-4 3/4.
After the foul was called, Nelson remained helplessly in the shot put ring for three minutes, pointing and pleading with officials, even as Bilonog
took the flag-draped victory lap that the former Dartmouth defensive tackle thought was his.
Nelson later sobbed on his wife's shoulder and covered his face with an American flag, his shirt caked with dust from the ancient grounds.
"When you compete at the level that I aspire to compete at, there's nothing but the best you shoot for. The silver medal is a great piece of hardware,
but it keeps me around for another four years," said Nelson, 29, a laurel wreath resting uncomfortably on his head.
"I felt it was my day, and I felt it was my year," Nelson said. "I really enjoyed the venue, but I just did not perform as well as I should have. I
could not find my competitive rhythm, so hat's off to Yuriy. No excuses. The circle was fine and the facility is great. I can only blame myself for
what happened today. I lost it, and he won it. But it is very hard to lose like this."
Replays showed Nelson's foot clearly out of the ring, and he apologized to officials after being told of the obvious foul.
Joachim Olsen of Denmark earned the bronze with a heave of 69-1 1/2. Two-time American Olympic medalist John Godina finished ninth in 66-3, just
missing the final eight and three more attempts.
Godina was baffled by his performance, thinking he had thrown well enough to keep putting.
"I really do not understand what happened today. I warmed up throwing 22.50s (meters, or 73 feet, 10 inches) in the other ring. I really thought I
made the final (eight), and then they told me I was out."
In the first women's event held at the ancient stadium, Korzhanenko easily outclassed the field with her winning third heave of 69-1 1/4. It was the
longest women's throw this year.
Cuba's Yumileidi Cumba unleashed 64-3 1/4 on her final throw to wrest the silver medal from Germany's Nadine Kleinert, who had a best of 64-1 1/4. The
two U.S. entrants, Kristin Heaston (56-4) and Laura Gerraughty (54-1/2), failed to qualify for the final.
"I think the Greek gods helped me win this gold medal today," Korzhanenko said following her dominant performance. "It was too hot for me today. The
conditions were far from ideal."
Cumba, however, didn't mind the heat, mustering all her energy on the final throw to snatch the silver.
"I am so excited, I lost my voice and can hardly speak," she said. "On the last throw, I just took everything that I had within me and gave it my best
Figuratively and literally.