By Scott Soshnickand Eben Novy-Williams
Nike is ending its Oregon Project supporting elite track athletes after a top coach was banned for violating anti-doping rules in a scandal that has engulfed the sport’s biggest corporate backer. A company spokesman confirmed the decision, which came less than two weeks after the project’s head and coach Alberto Salazar was barred from the sport for four years.
The project’s demise is a blow to Nike’s track and field efforts. The company has €4bn (€3.62bn) in annual running sales, and its marketing within the professional ranks is a large part of that appeal.
Nike is the biggest sponsor of running across the world, with close partnerships with the US Olympic Committee, USA Track & Field, international events and national bodies. The company is a €132bn (€119bn) giant whose shares have risen almost 28% in the past year.
“This situation, along with ongoing unsubstantiated assertions, is a distraction for many of the athletes and is compromising their ability to focus on their training and competition needs,” Nike chief executive officer Mark Parker said in a letter sent to the project team. “I have therefore made the decision to wind down the Oregon Project.”
Following a US anti-doping agency probe that spanned years, an independent arbitration panel found that Mr Salazar helped traffic testosterone, a banned substance, and tampered with evidence, but found no evidence that he administered the drugs to runners.
Mr Salazar has denied wrongdoing and has said he will appeal. Nike “will continue to support Alberto in his appeal”, it said in its statement. Mr Parker, who was found by the agency to have been aware of some of Mr Salazar’s activity, has also stood by the coach.
Mr Salazar and Tom Clarke, still a Nike executive, helped found the Nike Oregon Project in 2001. The goal was to use cutting-edge technology — Nike’s — and training methods to create a distance-running juggernaut.
It was a union of expertise and sponsorship unlike any other in the track world. Working out of Nike’s Oregon headquarters, Mr Salazar and his team found a lot of success, especially with British distance runner Mo Farah, who won a total of four Olympic gold medals at the 2012 and 2016 games.
US runner Galen Rupp, a two-time Olympian, was perhaps Mr Salazar’s other most successful runner. Over time the team became a focus of the track community, both for Mr Salazar’s training methods and for rumours of doping. Many of those allegations formed the backbone of USADA‘s ruling against him.
The four-year ban was the doping agency’s highest-profile ruling since 2016, when it banned cycling champion Lance Armstrong for life.
Closing the Oregon Project won’t end Nike’s dominance as a sponsor of track athletes. The team had about a dozen members, according to its website, a small percentage of the many runners sponsored by the world’s largest sports foot and clothing company.
Some of Nike Oregon Project’s runners are coached by people other than Mr Salazar. They include Dutch star Sifan Hassan, who recently won the women’s 10,000m at the World Championships in Qatar and US sprinter Donavan Brazier, who set a US record in the men’s 800m at the same race.
Nike will help all of its athletes under the programme with choosing the coaching set-up that is right for them in this transition, Mr Parker said.