Suspicious athletes led to coaching great Salazar’s downfall
DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Alberto Salazar was so excited about a performance-enhancing supplement he was trying out on his runners, he sent an email to none other than Lance Armstrong.
“Lance, call me asap!” Salazar wrote to the world’s most famous cyclist, who himself was only months away from being banned for life for doping. “We have tested it, and it’s amazing.”
The supplement the track coach was so jazzed about back in 2011 was called L-carnitine, and Salazar was preparing to have it infused into his runners’ systems so it could take effect in time to help them for the upcoming Olympics in London. It was part of a series of doping experiments being bankrolled and supported by Nike — support that included an encouraging email from the CEO about one of Salazar’s updates.
Problem was, none of the runners were quite sure what the effects were. More importantly, the athletes on Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project team weren’t always positive about what medications were being given, and how much.
Some athletes expressed their concerns to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, thus sparking a six-year investigation that culminated Tuesday with Salazar, a former marathon champion and America’s pre-eminent distance training coach, receiving a four-year ban from his sport and being kicked out of the track and field world championships in Doha.
“The athletes in these cases found the courage to speak out and ultimately exposed the truth,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said.
USADA released a pair of 100-plus-page decisions by an arbitration panel that delivered the suspensions for both Salazar and Dr. Jeffrey Brown, the endocrinologist who did contract work for NOP and administered the medicine.
The documents, combined with earlier reporting spearheaded by the BBC and ProPublica , paint a picture of a coach and doctor who used athletes, employees and, in one case, even Salazar’s own sons, as guinea pigs to test theories on how supplements and medicine could enhance performance without breaking anti-doping rules. The documents also show they went to great lengths to produce falsified and incomplete medical records that made their master plan hard to detect.
Behind it all was the world’s largest sportswear company. Nike wrote the contracts and paid the athletes, making it difficult for them to refuse the direction of their revered coach and his hand-picked doctor.
It “will be interesting to determine the minimal amount of topical male hormone required to create a positive test,” Nike CEO Mark Parker wrote to Brown in an email exchange about an experiment Salazar was conducting on his sons with testosterone gel.
Parker, in an open letter to Nike employees posted Tuesday on social media, emphasized that the tests on Salazar’s sons were not done to figure out how to cheat, but were part of a plan to prevent potential sabotage against Salazar’s runners.
“Nike did not participate in any effort to systematically dope any runners ever; the very idea makes me sick,” Parker wrote.
The take-down of Salazar adds him to a long list of high-profile Americans — with Armstrong at the top — who have been targeted by USADA, the drug-fighting watchdog that has been criticized for being too harsh on Russia, the IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency, as they struggle with that country’s ongoing doping scandal and rehabilitation.
It also serves as a stark reminder that doping continues to plague this sport not only in one country.
Salazar’s most-accomplished runner is Mo Farah of Britain, a four-time Olympic gold medalist who was knighted Queen Elizabeth in 2017.
U.S. Olympic silver and bronze medalist Galen Rupp is on the list, as is Sifan Hassan, who runs for the Netherlands and won the 10,000 meters at the world championships last weekend.
Hassan is one of seven NOP athletes competing in Doha this week.
Others hail from Ethiopia (Yomif Kejelcha), Germany (Konstanze Klosterhalfen), Australia (Jessica Hull) and the United States (Craig Engels and Clayton Murphy).
Another is American Donavan Brazier. Brazier won the 800-meter title Tuesday night, but he trains with one of Salazar’s assistants, Pete Julian, and says he barely knows Salazar.
The coach had vehemently defended himself against these charges in the media over the years, and on Tuesday, he said he would appeal the decision.
“The Oregon Project has never and will never permit doping,” Salazar said.
Nike stood by him, singling out one section of the report that said Salazar didn’t appear to have been motivated by bad intentions to commit the violations.
“As the panel noted, they were struck by the amount of care Alberto took to ensure he was complying with the World Anti-Doping Code,” Nike said in a statement sent before Parker’s letter went out.
Later in the same section, however, the arbitrators wrote that Salazar was so consumed with getting the best performance he could out of his athletes, that “unfortunately, that desire clouded his judgment in some instances, when his usual focus on the rules appears to have lapsed.”
The athletes in Salazar’s program have been subject to rigorous drug testing over the years without a positive.
The documents and evidence the arbitrators produced describe the lengths Salazar and Brown went to ensure that.
The supplement that started it all, L-carnitine, was neither banned nor considered off limits if infused at amounts of 50 milliliters or less. But Brown’s first test of the supplement, conducted on an MOP coach and trainer, Steve Magness, was done at a higher level. Magness, who was one of the key whistleblowers on the USADA case, appeared to benefit from the infusion, thus prompting the excited email from Salazar to Armstrong.
And when Salazar’s athletes, including Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein, were sent down to Brown’s Houston office to receive their own infusions, arbitrators determined they were intended to be at the same levels as the one Magness received, and that records were tampered with to make it look like less.
Magness left the Oregon Project in 2012 and now coaches at the University of Houston. He tweeted Monday , “Tell the truth. Own your mistakes. Choose the difficult path. In the short term, it might feel horrible, but over the long haul it’s the only path to take.”
Salazar was also accused of misusing and trafficking in testosterone, which has long been recognized as one of the most basic and easy-to-detect performance enhancers.
Arbitrators wrote about an instance in which Salazar rubbed testosterone gel on the backs of his sons as a way of finding out how much gel could be used before sparking a positive test. It was after that experiment that Brown exchanged emails with the Nike CEO to update him on the test.
The arbitrators said there were “numerous other examples of this type of ‘medical’ direction in the record of this case.” The directions involved calcium supplements, anti-inflammatories, sleep medication and the consistent pushing of thyroid medicine that is often used to increase metabolism and control weight.
It led distance runner Kara Goucher, a one-time NOP athlete, to comment that she “was very concerned (about Dr. Brown’s role with the NOP) because everybody on the team had hypothyroidism,” according to the report.
Though Salazar has been expelled from the world championships, this almost certainly doesn’t mark the end for him. The Cuban-born runner was a college star at Oregon, then went onto win four major marathon titles in New York and Boston from 1980-82. He founded the NOP in 2001. When stories about the case first emerged, he wrote an extensive defense of his method, one that also derided USADA for its aggressive investigation.
Though the expected appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport will likely be a dense legal case, the core issue is whether Salazar was simply trying to push to the edge of the boundaries of fair play, or if he crossed over them because of the medicine he practiced with athletes who eventually grew wary of his methods.