In June 2015, a few days after an investigation into Alberto Salazar finally saw the light of day, I sat with a fellow athletics journalist in a hotel lobby in Birmingham. He had known Salazar for a few decades, ever since the famed American coach had been a world-class athlete, and he was not at all surprised to hear of the revelations detailed in the bombshell story.
For several years, it was not so much smoke but thick clouds of cynicism that hung over Salazar’s work as head coach at the Nike Oregon Project.
The journalist believed he was cheating, and spoke about how Salazar could, as a devout Christian, come to terms with that in his own head.
“For him it’s a crusade,” he said; he meant Salazar’s mission to have American distance runners winning global medals. He believed Salazar’s end goal was to inspire a generation of young American distance runners that could beat the Africans, an ideal which justified his methods. Yes, they were likely against the rules, but if it meant many more youngsters flocking to distance-running, then wasn’t that a good thing?
It’s likely not far off the mark, and we don’t have to go far to find a parallel. One of Salazar’s good friends, Lance Armstrong, long justified doping with the reasoning that his results helped raise millions for cancer, spreading a message of hope among those battling the disease.
Armstrong also justified it with his belief — a legitimate one — that almost all of his chief rivals were doping. And Salazar, we know, was in a similar place.
Two years before he set up the Nike Oregon Project in 2001, he gave a talk to the Duke University Law Review and said it was “difficult to be among the top five in the world in any of the distance events without using EPO or human growth hormone”.
He knew the lay of the land. During the 1980s he was a member of Athletics West, a group in which former members say doping was widespread. Salazar was also coach to US star Mary Slaney when she tested positive in 1996 for testosterone — the same substance he was caught trafficking years later.
That was just one of three violations which gave the US Anti-Doping Agency grounds to ban him from the sport for four years on Monday.
In collaboration with endocrinologist Dr Jeffrey Brown, a paid Nike consultant, Salazar had also tampered with his athletes’ doping control process and administered a prohibited method via infusions of L-carnitine, a supplement he had come to love in recent years, once emailing Armstrong: “Call me ASAP! We have tested it and it’s amazing!”
Lance, Nike, Alberto — now there’s a golden trifecta of bankrupt morals.
Athletics, like cycling, has a long and well-stocked hall of shame when it comes to doping, but while the positive test of Ben Johnson may have been more seismic, the fall of Marion Jones more Hollywood, the unveiling of Russia’s state-sponsored doping more far-reaching, no single bust in the history of the sport could compare to Salazar’s.
The reason is how far his tentacles spread in sport’s elite echelon, how he was backed by the behemoth of Nike and doing it all on the company’s doorstep at their headquarters in Oregon.
Salazar coached Mo Farah from 2011 to 2017, guiding him to four Olympic titles before Farah moved back to England and turned his attention to the roads, since working with Gary Lough.
Salazar is still coach to Galen Rupp, who won Olympic 10,000m silver behind Farah in 2012 and Olympic bronze in the marathon in 2016. He is coach to Sifan Hassan, the Dutch athlete who was world class before joining the Oregon Project and is now virtually unbeatable. Hassan won world 10,000m gold here in Doha last weekend by reeling off a 3:59 1500m to finish the race, a time faster than Ciara Mageean, a two-time European medallist at the distance, has ever run.
Hassan, Rupp, and Farahall now face huge questions, having hitched their wagon to Salazar long after allegations about his practices were brought into the public light in 2015 through the whistle-blowing of athlete Kara Goucher, coach Steve Magness, and the superb investigative journalism of the BBC’s Mark Daly and ProPublica’s David Epstein.
Their work, their courage, created the biggest thunderbolt to hit athletics for many years, but few in the sport can claim they’re surprises. In Doha this week there has been much anger, but also celebration.
Truth is, the vast majority of athletes, coaches, and agents had long known what Salazar was up to, and had waited for this day. A cynical coach who was long lauded as a genius was found to be as flawed as everyone believed. The fairytale Salazar sold us was just that. He won’t be missed.