It is usually the flashy, fleet and sculpted attracting the major attention in track and field, not the burly, lumbering and rotund. But the best story of the eight-day U.S. Olympic trials might have begun unfolding Friday as four very large men frolicked with 16-pound steel balls in the middle of the Alex G. Spanos Athletic Complex.
John Godina, Adam Nelson, Christian Cantwell and Reese Hoffa, half a ton in total and perhaps double their weight in showmanship, are the best in the world in the shot put. Known for effusive displays and flying bearhugs that would smother your average marathon runner, they own 13 of the top throws in the world this year, and each easily advanced from Friday's qualifying round into Saturday's final.
But one of them will not go to Athens for the Aug. 13-29 Summer Games.
They are four big men, but there are only three Olympic team spots. "Obviously there's going to be tension," Godina said Thursday. "There's four people, and there's three airplane tickets.
"I don't think any other event [here] has the top four people in the world being American," Godina added before Friday's competition. "It's a little unnerving for all of us, because no one wants to stay home. Somebody's going to end up with the short straw."
Perhaps the least likely candidate to watch the Athens Games on television is Cantwell, 23, who was virtually unknown before winning the World Athletics Final last year. Cantwell, who graduated from Missouri last year, stands 6 feet 6 and weighs 290 pounds. He has surpassed 73 feet three times but, he said, it took him years to get his bulk under control.
"Three years ago, four years ago I had a hard time staying in the ring," Cantwell said during a recent teleconference. "When you're tall and you have a lot of weight moving in one direction, it doesn't want to stop. I had to make some changes to my technique."
There is also Godina, a two-time Olympic medal winner (silver and bronze) who, at 32, is the grandfather of the group but still intends to add gold to his Olympic medal collection. Entering Saturday's final he has the second-best throw in the world not heaved by Cantwell at 71.275 feet.
When someone commented that the Olympic shot put competition will attract plenty of attention this year given that it will be the only event contested in the ancient stadium at Olympia, Godina remarked, "I sure hope so. I like being a star."
Nelson, 29, the 2000 Olympic silver medalist and two-time U.S. champion, was a government major at Dartmouth who played defensive tackle for the varsity. "As my butt got bigger, they moved me up closer to the line," he once said.
He is perhaps best known for theatrics that include storming around the ring and ripping off his T-shirt before he throws. He owns the third-best mark in the world that doesn't belong to Cantwell or Godina and was eager for Saturday's final.
Saturday "is when the real destruction happens," he said after Friday's qualifying was complete.
Hoffa, 26, the world indoors silver medalist this year, is considered almost as nutty as Nelson. He finished second at the 2003 Home Depot Invitational while wearing a black mask with a red X on his face that concealed his identity. A pro wrestling fan, Nelson had entered the meet as the "The Unknown Shot Putter."
"It's not just for show," Godina said about the carrying-on. "Throwers use that type of excitement to make ourselves do better. It's not an act. It's not pre-planned or scripted. It's just the way we do competitions."
As a measure of the United States' talent in the event, the reigning U.S. champion, Kevin Toth, isn't even here. He is one of the four athletes who has thus far been banned from the sport in connection with the drug scandal surrounding the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO).
Even without Toth, who tested positive last year for the designer steroid THG, there don't seem to be enough Olympic team spots to go around.
"If you take us to any meet in the world, we'd finish in the top four," Godina said. "This is our best chance to sweep [at the Olympics] that we've ever had in shot. It's exciting to know that could happen, and I'd like to be leading the sweep instead of just being a part of it."