Just a few days into the 2019 IAAF World Championships where five Nike Oregon Project (NOP) athletes were competing, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) disclosed that the NOP head coach, Alberto Salazar, received a four year ban from athletics. Under the ban, he cannot communicate with any of his athletes nor be present at any athletics competitions.
Alberto Salazar received the ban after being found guilty of three major anti-doping code violations: giving his athletes a prohibited amount of L-carnitine, “trafficking” testosterone and attempts to tamper with the doping control process. The ban was given in 2018 but was only announced to the public during the championships. Shortly after the ban was released, Nike expressed support for Salazar, even offering funding for an appeal, but nonetheless shut down the NOP.
Whispers and accusations of improper conduct had hounded Salazar for years despite continuing to produce the world’s fastest distance runners. There had been several whistleblowers claiming that Salazer operated in the grey zone just below full-fledged doping infractions. However, he had never been caught red-handed and the athletics community assumed that the whistleblowers were simply disgruntled former runners and that nothing would ever become of the accusations.
USADA did a full investigation into Salazar’s actions and banned him in 2018. The ban only came to light after the appeal was ruled on during the IAAF World Championships in October 2019. The failure of his appeal during the competition left five of his athletes competing without a coach.
With the Oregon Project’s founder and head coach banned for the next four years, Nike bent to the overwhelming pressure and shut down the organization completely shortly after the championships.
Salazar was one of the world’s best distance runners in the 1980s with multiple medals in world marathon majors. He was known for pushing himself to the extreme, even passing out after races. After he retired he decided to apply his knowledge to coaching and became one of the greatest distance track coaches. He has coached many world class athletes such as Yomif Kejelcha who has a total of five medals from both indoor and outdoor World Championships, Mo Farah who has a total of ten outdoor World Championship and Olympic gold medals, and Sifan Hassan who currently holds the world record in the mile and won two gold medals in the most recent World Championship.
He was notorious for seeking an edge in training his athletes. He would try any new product or gimmick that could shave a fraction of a second from a world record such as face masks to filter out pollen in the air or placing tape on the outside of the lower legs to aid aerodynamics.
However, there were insinuations of more sinister actions. A former assistant coach and former star athlete described how Salazar would give athletes prescription thyroid medication to lose weight without proper diagnosis or prescription. It was also alleged that Salazar insisted on massaging one of his most successful athletes alone and was found to have testosterone cream in his bag at the same time, which is an illegal performance-enhancing substance. Salazar claimed that the testosterone cream was for himself, not his athlete, however the situation was suspicious.
Shortly after the ban and the team shutting down, former NOP athlete Mary Cain released a video with the New York Times claiming that she was emotionally and physically abused by Salazar and his team. Before Cain signed with the NOP she was one of the fastest girls in the US, she had won the indoor mile American Championships when she was only 16 years of age. Cain claims that once she joined Salazar and his team, they were convinced that the only way for her to get faster was to lose weight. If Salazar felt that she was too heavy he would publicly shame her.
In the end, USADA found Salazar to be guilty of three doping infractions. First, he gave his athletes a prohibited amount of L-carnitine, which is a legal performance-enhancing substance but only if it’s less than 50ml per six hour window. It makes the body run off of fats earlier in the run which is more efficient. Salazar’s ex-assistant coach, Steve Magness, repeatedly received infusions over 1000 mL and in a series of treadmill tests that followed the infusions, his performance increased by an “unbelievable” amount. He claims that salazar was so excited by the results that he decided to use the procedure on NOP athletes. His second doping infraction was for “trafficking” testosterone. He would smear testosterone gel on his son’s legs to see how much would trigger a positive test. Salazar claims that the experiment was to find out how much of testosterone gel it would take to to test positive in case a rival tried to sabotage one of his athletes by rubbing it on one of them. Nevertheless, this experiment seems extremely suspicious as it’s completely out of his control when someone rubs testosterone cream on one of his athletes. Salazar’s third anti-doping rule violation was for attempting to tamper with the doping control process. He claims that it was an accident but when one of his athletes received an L-carnitine injection he marked that it was taken orally.
Salazar vehemently defended himself in a press release, addressing every infraction in morbid detail. He has stated repeatedly that he plans on appealing the ban. Nike has stated that it will use its own lawyers to support Salazar’s appeal but it is unclear at this point whether it will follow through with that claim. The rumour is that the NOP will resurrect itself with a different name and a different head coach. If this happens, it would appear that Nike has moved on without Alberto Salazar.
Image Credit: Wikipedia / Cal Hopkins