Good news — Bad news on this National Running Day 2015. The bad news comes from the BBC investigative show Panorama, which, in conjunction with Pro Publica raised disquieting questions about alleged drug use and unethical practices by Coach Alberto Salazar at the Nike Oregon Project. I won’t retrace the allegations. You can read the complete story at the Pro Publica link above. *
Suffice it to say that performance-enhancing drugs have been the bane of sports for over sixty years. How many of the current track records do people really believe were achieved on the up-and-up? Today, it is damned if you do run fast, jump high, or throw far (see Justin Gatlin), and damned if you don’t (everybody else).
I’m no apologist for drug use, but with the political conflagration at FIFA, soccer’s governing body, and the corruption everyone knows to be endemic in athletics, where does the concept of fair play even begin to come into consideration for the lowly athletes of this world? Kris Kristofferson wrote about such displacement with “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”. In analyzing risk-reward, there has to be a semblance of balance in the weighing. So when the scale tilts to no perceived downside, and any action is regarded as reaction to an uneven playing field, where is systemic disincentive? Fair play? A rich man’s pleasure, not a poor man’s choice. When white collar crime is punished with fines while street offenses land years in jail, what lessons are taken?
So the thinking goes something along the lines: If I use PEDs and don’t get caught, then I can collect and change my life and all those around me. But even if do get caught, if all that happens is I revert to the same nothing I began with, why wouldn’t I do it? That’s why Wesley Korir‘s bill before the Kenyan parliament to criminalize performance enhancing drug use might finally institute a cost that offsets the reward. But a two-year ban? That’s a holiday.
There were always rumors of drug use coming out of Athletics West, the all-star team Nike developed at the height of the first running boom. But AW was shuttered just weeks after Michigan’s Jeff Drenth died in the team office following a workout in 1986. Just 24 at the time, Drenth’s irregular heartbeat and cause of death were never officially known, linking, rightly or wrongly, his tragic passing to the closing of the AW program.
Swoosh, The Unauthorized Story of Nike and the Men Who Played There, a book written in 1992 by Julie Strasser (ex-wife of Nike’s one-time chief counsel Rob Strasser) and Laurie Becklund, alleged that many athletes on the AW team used steroids with Nike’s knowledge. Salazar was a leading member of that team beginning in the early 1980s during the time he won the two of his three New York City and single Boston Marathon titles. And when his own running career went from comet to casualty after New York 1982, there were those who believed that drugs were a contributing cause of the flame out.
While no evidence ever arose to back those beliefs, the rumors persisted. And combined with Al’s intense personality and rigorous search for supplements that might resurrect his career, he made it hard on himself in terms of finding allies. As Kara Goucher said in the BBC show, “he has always been a win at all costs person.”
But that doesn’t make him a cheat. I have known Alberto since 1977, even before he headed west to attend the University of Oregon. So that’s my bias. I also know of his strong Christian belief and family values.
Extremely focused but without a finishing gear, Al attacked his opponents, willing to sacrifice himself to the effort. He famously put himself in harms way at the 1978 Falmouth Road Race and 1982 Boston Marathon, and brought that aggression to his coaching. Hard track sessions right after indoor races? Either innovative or way too much. In other words, here was a complex, driven man whose own health has been compromised in part because of that drive, as when he suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 2007.
Nobody’s saying he’s not playing the margins. But where is the line? Where does gray become black? How close to the line is any of today’s crop of top athletes? It’s the system they have all been taught.
Last year Alberto approached two separate women about taking over the NOP middle distance and women’s programs, explaining his own limitations in those areas. So ask yourself, does trying to recruit an outside coach, neither of whom came from within the Nike system, come across as a secretive rules infringer? What, he was going to bring someone new in then NOT tell her about the micro-dosing or thyroid drug usage policy? And since no mention or allegation in the Panorama / Pro Publica investigation was made about Mo Farah, Salazar’s #1 charge, are we to believe that only Galen Rupp was on the secret sauce?
Don’t get me wrong. It could all be true, and this could well be a duck. But I need more than what has been offered to feather it.
Now for the good news. Today, USATF released the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon course in Los Angeles. It is a nifty four-loop circuit (along with a 2.2 mile rounding loop) that begins and finishes at the LA Live complex downtown adjacent to Staples Center, then pays homage to the 1932 & `84 Olympic Games with its passing of the L.A. Coliseum at the south end of the six-mile loop, while utilizing wide Figueroa Street as its main drag, which links in with the history of the Asics L.A. Marathon itself. The course is flat and fan-friendly, and promises to showcase the abundant U.S. distance talent quite nicely, as well as selecting a very representational team for Rio.