As an athlete Alberto Salazar was willing to delve more deeply into the dark raging corridors within than any athlete I ever encountered. That do-or-die spirit is what elevated Al to iconic status as a runner, but it also brought him to the edge of the abyss. Twice he ran himself to the precipice of a serious medical crisis, once at the Falmouth Road Race 1978 (hyperthermia), again at the 1982 Boston Marathon (hypothermia).
Now, with the release of a 269-page interim USADA report on the Nike Oregon Project and its coach by Russian hackers, we find Coach Salazar’s intense drive to succeed once again putting him on the edge between fair and foul, not only in the court of sport, but in the court of public opinion.
According to the Sunday Times, to whom the report was leaked, the USADA investigation into Alberto’s practices alleges “substantial and compelling” evidence that Salazar and Houston endocrinologist Jeffrey Brown colluded to use prescription medications “in sometimes potentially unlawful” ways to boost performance involving seven Nike Oregon Project athletes. At the same time, the report is a year old, and though other questionable practices were listed in the interim report, no subsequent public announcements or accusations have come out officially from USADA – though they have confirmed the legitimacy of the leaked document.
But like the Trump administration focusing solely on the leaks rather than the fact of a connection between Trump associates and Russian intelligence officers before the November election, Coach Salazar’s focus on the leak rather than the actual allegations listed in the USADA report masks a disquieting avoidance to address the central issues it contained.
“The leaking of information and the litigation of false allegations in the press, is disturbing, desperate and a denial of due process,” Alberto emailed the Oregonian’s Ken Goe.
There is an old Carl Sandburg quote: “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.”
Sunday, Salazar’s star athlete, four-time Olympic champion Mo Farah, felt compelled to tweet his denial of wrongdoing upon release of the Sunday Times story.
“It’s deeply frustrating that I’m having to make an announcement on this subject. I am a clean athlete who has never broken the rules in regards to substances, methods or dosages and it is upsetting that some parts of the media, despite the clear facts, continue to try to associate me with allegations of drug misuse.”
But who, indeed, has the ‘clear facts’?
And now, here we are heading toward Galen Rupp‘s highly anticipated debut at the Boston Marathon this April, a race his coach so memorably won in 1982 after growing up in nearby Wayland, Massachusetts. Yet the story that will greet athlete and coach when they arrive in town will be about the charges contained in the USADA report rather than Galen’s hopes and fitness for the big race.
Sports were once considered adjuncts to classroom studies. But they eventually became a big business tail that wagged the educational dog on many college campuses. Today, the gap between the letter of performance enhancing drug prohibition and the spirit with which it is followed has been split wide open.
When a drug or supplement is said to be “banned”, is it the intention of that prohibition for athletes and coaches to find ways around it by staying as close to the ceiling of use as possible, or perhaps combining that supplement with another that together creates an outcome that the single supplement wouldn’t while still adhering to the strict letter of the law, yet transgressing on the spirit, which is to maintain a level playing field?
Yet that spirit is constantly shape-shifting. Remember how English sprinter Harold Abrahams was excoriated for hiring Sam Mussabini, a professional coach, to train him for the 1924 Olympics in Paris? That story was memorably told in the Oscar-winning 1981 film Chariots of Fire. In the amateur era it was considered untoward to utilize a pro coach, or even to train full-time as a primary goal.
Nowadays, with sport having entered the professional realm, the fine line between the letter and spirit of the law has been stretched to the breaking point as athletes and their coaches search for every advantage in the drive to elevate performance. And just wait till gene therapy gets going. We think the waters are murky now?
This will never end, not as long as men strive and prizes and glory are valued. Look no further than the New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, whose competitive fire burns as brightly as any modern-day athlete. But there can be a dark side to every silver lining.
There are many football fans outside New England who will always discount the Patriots’ five Super Bowl successes as having been achieved by crossing ethical lines – Spy Gate & Deflate Gate – regardless of how real or advantageous those perceived transgressions might have actually been.
Now it seems equally true that even if Alberto Salazar’s extreme coaching methods with NOP are eventually exonerated as falling within the letter of the law, a public indictment against their spirit has already been handed up as a true bill. And that is the kind of indictment no subsequent appeal can fully erase.
Looking back, one would have to wonder, true, untrue, or somewhere in the shade between, was such a protocol worth it in the long run?