On Monday night, the United States Anti-Doping Agency imposed a four-year ban, effective immediately, on Alberto Salazar, the head coach of the Nike Oregon Project. USADA has also sanctioned Dr. Jeffrey Brown, an endocrinologist who worked as a consultant for the NOP and had previously been implicated in possible rule violations by the club. Both men were found guilty of “orchestrating and facilitating prohibited doping conduct,” by two separate three-person panels of a dispute resolution body known as the American Arbitration Association (AAA). In a statement posted on the Oregon Project website late last night, Salazar said that he was “shocked” and planned to appeal USADA’s decision.
While yesterday’s announcement may have sent high-magnitude shock waves through the running Twittersphere, it would be incorrect to say that the news came as a huge surprise. Indeed, the charges against Salazar, which include administering illegal quantities of L-carnitine (a naturally occurring substance that converts fat into energy), trafficking testosterone (a banned substance), and tampering with the doping control process, have already been reported on in the past. Seen in this light, the big news isn’t so much that Salazar has violated anti-doping rules, but that he finally has to suffer the consequences.
As a quick recap: in 2015, ProPublica published a damning report that included testimony from former NOP coach Steve Magness and former NOP athletes Kara and Adam Goucher, which alleged, among other things, that Salazar had smeared testosterone gel on his sons’ legs to see how much would trigger a positive test. In 2017, the New York Times published an article detailing Salazar’s enthusiasm for L-carnitine. As a supplement, it’s not banned, but anti-doping rules prohibit infusions or injections of more than 50 milliliters of any substance (for non-medicinal reasons) in a six-hour period. As the Times reported, a leaked USADA document showed that former NOP athlete Dathan Ritzenhein had likely received an infusion “far in excess” of 50 mL and that Dr. Brown had seemingly altered Ritzenhein’s medical records to obscure this fact. Meanwhile, Magness, whom Salazar appeared to be using as his personal guinea pig, probably received an infusion of “at least 1000 mL.”
Of course, there’s a difference between experimenting on your assistant coach and experimenting on one of your athletes. That distinction could prove crucial in the coming weeks as questions will inevitably arise as to how it can be that Salazar must face the music, while none of his runners (neither present nor former) suffer any repercussions. At least so far, no NOP athlete has been officially been charged with any wrongdoing.
The timing of USADA’s announcement gives the question of potential athlete sanctions an additional degree of urgency. On Sunday, Oregon Project superstar Sifan Hassan won the women’s 10,000-meters at the IAAF World Championships by running the final 1,500-meters of the race in three minutes and 59 seconds. It was the kind of performance that turned heads, to put it mildly. (Hassan, whose personal best in a straight-up 1,500 is 3:55:93, issued a statement through her management company saying that she was also “shocked” by the USADA announcement and that, somewhat contradictorily, she had been aware the NOP was being investigated when she joined the team in 2016.) Meanwhile, two NOP marathoners, namely Galen Rupp and Jordan Hasay, are slated to compete in the Chicago Marathon in less than two weeks’ time. At the time of this writing, neither Rupp nor Hasay has issued a statement.
While the charges against Salazar don’t really include any new bombshells about the beleaguered coach, yesterday’s announcement appears to also implicate Mark Parker, the CEO of Nike.
The AAA’s decision on Dr. Brown details a 2009 email exchange between Parker and the endocrinologist. Responding to Brown’s report on the NOP’s experiments with Androgel (which contains testosterone), Parker notes that: “It will be interesting to determine the minimal amount of topical male hormone required to create a positive test,” and asks whether there were “other topical hormones that would create more dramatic results.”
To be clear: this is the CEO of the world’s largest athletic shoe and apparel company, not some skulking henchman. In fairness, it is possible to read the email exchange between Brown and Parker as a confirmation of what the NOP has been claiming all along: that the Androgel experiments were meant to test how easy it would be for opposing athletes or coaches to sabotage NOP runners.
“We know that rubbing arms and legs is more of a potential problem than hand shaking after an event since an athlete is much more likely to feel a ‘blob’ in a hand shake,” Brown writes in his email to Parker. Unless the two men are communicating in some form of code, the language here strongly suggests that the NOP was legitimately afraid that its athletes could be framed.
But does that kind of paranoia warrant allegedly conducting an experiment with a banned substance—an experiment that effectively doubles as a test to see what prospective cheaters could potentially get away with?
In his brief statement, Salazar notes that the panel that condemned him had simultaneously been struck by the fact that he did “not appear to have been motivated by any bad intention to commit the violations,” and that he had shown an unusual level of care “to ensure that whatever new technique or method or substance he was going to try was lawful under the World Anti-Doping Code.”
This, I would argue, is pretty revealing, in the same way that it is revealing when an athlete proudly states that he or she has “never failed a doping test.” Of course Salazar had no intention to commit a violation. He has always, however, seemed intent on testing the limits of what he could get away with, while still officially complying with the rules. But just because something is legal, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ethical.
It’s likely that Salazar is not interested in that distinction. He may genuinely believe that you have to be willing to venture deep into the gray area of what’s officially allowed in order to succeed on the razor’s edge of professional athletics. For years, his athletes appeared to benefit from that philosophy. But yesterday’s announcement feels like a sign that that’s about to change.