When Alberto Salazar launched the Nike Oregon Project in 2001 he had one simple goal: to do whatever it took to break the African stranglehold on distance running.
“It’s like in war,” Salazar once said of his approach to coaching. ”The soldier has to learn how to fight and do everything – be physically fit, be a one-man army. But then you try and equip him with every bit of top science – everything you can – to keep him alive. That’s what we do.”
Salazar had spent a lifetime trying to beat the Africans – through punishing workouts as a top American marathoner in the 1980s and bizarre experiments later as a coach of some of the world’s best runners. His will to win was so strong that he once collapsed at the end of a race and was given last rites.
His big breakthrough came at the 2012 Olympics in London when two Nike Oregon Project runners, Mo Farah of Britain and Galen Rupp of the United States, took gold and silver, respectively, in the 10,000 metres. That ended years of dominance by Africans who had won all but one medal in the event since 1988. Soon athletes from all over, including Canada’s Cam Levins, were flocking to the NOP’s complex in Portland, Ore., to learn Salazar’s secrets.
The glory didn’t last long. Salazar’s unorthodox training methods eventually caught up with him and on Sept. 30 the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency slapped him and the NOP’s medical adviser, Houston endocrinologist Jeffrey Brown, with a four-year ban after an arbitration panel found they had committed several doping violations. The USADA investigation had taken six years and it uncovered a host of dubious activities at the NOP, including widespread misuse of prescription drugs, a strange experiment involving testosterone and improper injections of a substance that eased muscle fatigue. Salazar and Brown had “demonstrated that winning was more important than the health and well being of the athletes they were sworn to protect,” USADA chief executive Travis Tygart said.
The sanctions have rippled across the sports world. Nike closed the NOP last month and the company’s chief executive, Mark Parker, stepped down to become executive chairman. The head of UK Athletics has been fired and the organization is probing its ties to Salazar. This week, the World Anti-Doping Agency confirmed that it has launched an inquiry into the NOP and it’s considering retesting some of the stored blood and urine samples of the club’s runners.
The case has cast a dark shadow over the Oregon Project’s athletes, even though none has tested positive for banned drugs or been accused of wrongdoing by the USADA. “There is no allegation against me. I’ve not done anything wrong,” Farah told reporters last month. Levins, who spent three years at the NOP and left in 2017, was unavailable for comment but he has said that he was injured for most of his time with Salazar. “I have the utmost faith in Alberto and my former teammates that they’re clean and have high morals,” he told reporters in 2017.
Salazar said he was shocked by USADA’s findings and plans to file an appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. “I have always ensured the [world anti-doping code] is strictly followed. The Oregon Project has never and will never permit doping,” he said in a statement. His supporters note that the sanctions pertain to relatively minor violations of procedure and don’t involve any direct doping of athletes. Nike, too, is standing by Salazar and has insisted that Parker’s resignation as CEO had nothing to do with the NOP case. The company added that it will “continue to support Alberto in his appeal, as a four-year suspension for someone who acted in good faith is wrong.”
Salazar has been a divisive figure in track circles for years and the sanctions have been largely welcomed as a long-overdue punishment for someone who constantly bent the rules. “Salazar had become the apotheosis of a certain approach to sport, which is that what you should be doing is right up to the edge of the rules,” said Alex Hutchinson, a Canadian journalist and former athlete who writes about the science of endurance and fitness, including for The Globe and Mail. “And that led him to do a lot of grey-area stuff, which is the kind of stuff that makes me and many, many other people uncomfortable.” He added that Salazar had also become a target for many people because of his association with Nike. “Salazar has come to stand in for a company that a lot of people feel is a bully and a force not necessarily for good,” Hutchinson said.
Documents filed as part of the USADA action paint a picture of a driven coach whose win-at-all-costs mentality led him astray. The three-member panel of arbitrators said Salazar was not motivated by bad intentions and they marvelled at how meticulous he was at checking the rules with anti-doping officials, although he often looked for a way around them. They concluded that his desire to provide the best training possible “clouded his judgment in some instances, when his usual focus on the rules appears to have lapsed.”
Salazar had always been someone who sought every possible advantage. He was among the first American athletes to train at high altitude in the 1970s and he later built a contraption he could use at home in Massachusetts to mimic the same scarcity of oxygen. He tried lotions used for racehorses to reduce muscle inflammation and he has acknowledged using testosterone briefly in 1991 when he was trying to revive his running career.
His innovations proved successful up to a point. He won the New York City Marathon three times in the 1980s. But he also suffered years of injuries, illness and a deep depression that led him to contemplate suicide. “I pushed myself as far as my body could go,” he said in a lengthy article in 2015 when some allegations about the NOP first surfaced. “In fact, I trained and ran so hard it nearly killed me and I still suffer today the negative physical effects of my excessive training.”
Through it all, Salazar has enjoyed the unwavering backing of Nike. The shoe giant sponsored him as an athlete and gave him a marketing job when his career finally ended in 1996. The company even put his name on a building at the company’s headquarters in Eugene, Ore., in-between one named after golfer Tiger Woods and another one for basketball great Michael Jordan. When Salazar hatched the plan for the Oregon Project in 2001, after lamenting about the sorry state of U.S. distance running to a Nike executive, the company jumped in with millions of dollars. It also hired Salazar’s two sons, Alex and Tony, to work at the NOP.
With Nike’s deep pockets at the ready, Salazar was free to pursue his wildest ideas. He built an altitude house at the Nike complex in Portland and installed underwater treadmills, laser-therapy machines and super cold cryosaunas to help runners recover faster. With the help of the doctor, Brown, he put several athletes on massive doses of vitamin D, Testo Boost and thyroid medication in a vain attempt to increase their testosterone levels.
For many athletes, life at the NOP was a dream. They had access to Nike’s vast resources, including research labs, state-of-the-art equipment, a team of masseurs and financing for trips around the world to compete and train. Brown flew on the company’s jet to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and several athletes were paid US$200,000 a year or more by Nike plus bonuses. Many excelled, especially Farah, who went from a decent runner to a four-time Olympic and six-time world champion. Levins, too, set the Canadian record for 10,000 metres in 2015 while training under Salazar.
The NOP quickly became known in track circles for its vast resources and stunning workload. It wasn’t uncommon for NOP runners to do a workout after races while rivals looked on in amazement. “We thought, on the one side maybe these guys are getting those results because they’re working really hard,” recalled Canadian distance runner Reid Coolsaet. “And on the other hand, maybe they were able to work that hard because they were able to recover better than a normal human being.”
The NOP group largely kept to themselves, following strict orders from Salazar not to discuss their training regime. Salazar worried constantly about competitors spiking water bottles or rubbing testosterone gel on the back of an NOP athlete so they would test positive. He ordered NOP runners to lock up their bottles and never high-five or touch anyone after a race. Salazar’s fear was so strong that when Rupp mentioned that someone had slapped him on the back after a race, the coach immediately organized an experiment with his sons to see if a casual slap of testosterone gel could lead to a positive test. It took several applications before Salazar was finally convinced that it couldn’t.
Not everyone inside the NOP felt comfortable with Salazar’s methods. Panic spread among some members of the group in 2012 after health officials issued a warning that the overuse of a nasal spray containing calcitonin, which is used to strengthen bones, could increase the risk of cancer. Many NOP athletes, including U.S. marathoner Dathan Ritzenhein, had been using the spray regularly on Salazar’s advice that it would fend off stress fractures. “Is this some kind of joke?” Ritzenhein said in an e-mail to an NOP assistant coach after he ordered the runners to stop using the spray because of the cancer risk. “I have been taking this for the last four years!” Another NOP runner, American Olympian Kara Goucher, became so concerned about the overuse of prescription drugs she reported it to the USADA and testified against Salazar during the arbitration hearing. “I was a part of a culture that was so manipulative and so controlling and so wrong,” she told reporters last month. “Your entire life is dependent on the power of this brand.”
For other NOP athletes the limit had come in 2011 when Salazar became obsessed with an energy drink from Britain called NutraMet, which claimed it could boost performance by 10 per cent. The key ingredient was L-carnitine, a natural substance found in many foods that can slow the depletion of glycogen in muscles, a key energy source, by increasing the amount of fat that’s burned. Salazar called it the “greatest legal sports supplement ever” and he bought up the company’s initial supply. He also lobbied Nike executives to acquire NutraMet so that no other athletes could have access to it.
When he discovered that it would take six months of drinking NutraMet to show results, Salazar arranged for assistant coach Steve Magness to take the supplement intravenously to see if there would be an immediate impact. Magness agreed and his running improved instantly. Salazar was so excited he e-mailed the results to Parker and Lance Armstrong, the Nike-sponsored cyclist who would later be banned for life for doping. “Lance, call me asap! We have tested it and it’s amazing! You are the only athlete I’m going to tell the actual numbers to other than Galen Rupp. It’s too incredible. All completely legal and natural,” Salazar wrote. He soon had six NOP athletes, including Rupp, taking NutraMet intravenously. Later he would say the drink provided little benefit.
Magness and others worried about the legality of what they were doing. While L-carnitine isn’t banned by the USADA, it can only be administered in maximum doses of 50 millilitres every six hours. Magness had received one litre and he told the USADA that he believed the athletes had also received doses above the threshold. During the arbitration hearing Salazar insisted that he followed the doping rules when giving the supplement to the athletes. But the panel found that Salazar and Brown had tampered with records and disguised how much the runners had received.
It’s unclear when Salazar’s appeal will be heard or if there will be any further fallout from the USADA’s revelations or the WADA investigation. But some athletes, such as Coolsaet, aren’t sure that this will be the end of the 61-year-old Salazar. “I really don’t know,” Coolsaet said. He paused and added: “I hope it would be the end of his coaching career but I wouldn’t be surprised if he came back.”