Alberto Salazar has been telling people for years that North Americans and Europeans could beat Africans in distance races. Not many people listened, until now.
Salazar coaches Mo Farah of Great Britain and American Galen Rupp, who made history Saturday by taking gold and silver in the 10,000 metres at the London Olympics. They not only broke the Africa’s stranglehold on the event, they sent shock waves through the distance running community. No Briton had won the 10,000 and no non-African had crossed first since 1984. And it had been 48 years since an American had earned any medal in the race.
Salazar never had any doubt. “I’ll be honest I thought we were going to medal and I thought we were going to go 1-2,” he said after the race. “I’m proud of them but not at all surprised.”
Salazar knows all about what it’s like to compete against Africans. In the 1980s he dominated the marathon, winning three consecutive New York City marathons, and took on Kenyans such as then multiple world record holder Henry Rono in cross country and track races. After he retired from the sport, Salazar turned his attention to improving the lot of U.S. distance running.
By the late 1990s, Africans seemed untouchable in distance races, routinely winning the Olympic and world championships in 5,000 and 10,000 metres, cross country and marathons. Salazar couldn’t understand why.
“I absolutely believe that starting 20 years ago, Americans and Western Europeans had a defeatist attitude,” he said. “For whatever other reasons the Americans and Brits went through a little bit of a lull and all of a sudden the East Africans started running faster than any one had run before, but now the Americans and Brits and Europeans were running slower so all of a sudden you had this huge gap.”
To close the gap Salazar teamed up with Nike in 2001 and formed the Nike Oregon project. The goal was to put Americans on the podium in distance events. Nike contributed the cash and Salazar the ideas. He tinkered constantly, trying computer programs, special tents to simulate high altitude and underwater treadmills.
Rupp, then a high-school student, was among the first members of the project but even he had doubts about Americans actually beating Africans. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say there were times when I didn’t think that would happen, but we’ve always kind of stuck it out,” he said Saturday.
“There have definitely been some bumps on the road along the way but he has just been meticulous in his planning. He takes a really long-term gradual approach and I think today he really showed that that pays off.”