Let’s begin with Emma Coburn’s response to the Kenyan team saying before the World Championships that they would bring the women’s steeplechase medals in Doha back to Kenya where they belong after Emma and teammate Courtney Frerichs won gold and silver in London 2017 for Team USA.
“I don’t listen to what other people say,” Coburn told NBC. “I’m focused on what I have to do and will bring my fight to the arena.”
Last night in Doha, Coburn’s fight brought her to a 9:02.35 PR to take the silver medal behind Kenyan Beatrice Chepkoech as the Kenyan star literally ran away with the gold medal in a championship record 8:57.94.
It was the third straight PR by Coburn in global event finals. She went from a 9:07.63 bronze medal at the Rio Olympics 2016 to a 9:02.58 gold in the London World Championships 2017, and now a 9:02.35 silver in Doha.
Odds are Colburn will never run the times Chepkoech has. So what are you to do about that? Accept it graciously and thank your competitors for bringing out the best in you? Or do you look for another way to get closer?
How does this play into the four-year ban announced yesterday by USADA against Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar and Houston-based endocrinologist Dr. Jeffrey Brown? Well, Alberto was never like Emma Coburn, he did pay close attention to what others said and did. And he did look for another way.
Throughout his athletic career, beginning at the Greater Boston Track Club, then at the University of Oregon, Alberto competed against older, stronger athletes, notably east African runners who took from him collegiate accolades that might well have been his had the playing field been more even. It wasn’t till after Alberto graduated that the NCAA decided to restrict older foreign athletes from competing against American teens.
Secondly, Alberto was always an nth-degree guy, willing to explore the dark raging corridors within more deeply than anyone of his era. Twice he put himself on death’s doorstep in competition, investing every fiber of his being into the effort to win.
After the 1982 New York City Marathon, in which he bested Rodolfo Gomez of Mexico by four seconds in the final stretch in Central Park, Al didn’t sleep right for 10 days and never really got back to the same athlete he was before.
But that didn’t mean he didn’t ever stop looking for ways to return. I used to get postcards from Al as he traveled the world looking for answers. He knew it wasn’t a muscular-skeletal problem. It was his internal systems that had overloaded, his adrenals had burnt out. If he could just find the right combination of substances to rebalance those internal systems…
Ex-Team USA Coach Bob Larsen once famously said, “We are never going to out-talent the Kenyans. So we have to use the advantages of our own western culture to improve.”
By that Bob meant the science of coaching, the facilities to improve overall strength and conditioning, nutrition, new technologies in form analysis, altitude-simulation tents, zero-gravity treadmills, etc.
That is the terrain that Alberto Salazar and NOP explored. But as the four-year ban by USADA underscores, it’s also the ground upon which he has fallen.
The fact that he kept constantly going to USADA and asking ‘is this OK? Is that OK?’ let you know that he was looking to get as close to the letter of the law as possible in order to compete with the east Africans. That he was working with an endocrinologist is further evidence of someone out working the edges.
It’s like fitness itself. The trick is to train right up to the edge without getting injured or sick. That’s why Bernard Lagat says “it’s better to be 80% 100% of the time than 100% 0% of the time.”
But not everyone can win at 80%. There are those who have to play at the edges. Al was an edge player.
And it worked, both in his own short but meteoric career, and then at NOP where his athletes flourished. Yet there were always those rumors and murmurs. And now after a two-year court case between Salazar and USADA, the American Arbitration Association panel decided that, his intentions notwithstanding, the bending had in fact become breaking. Alberto had gone over the edge and thus the four-year ban was approved.
As Nike pointed out in its own statement following yesterday’s announcement, Al wasn’t accused of actually doping anybody. None of his NOP athletes had ever tested positive for a banned substance. Several are scheduled to race the Chicago Marathon in two weeks and others are performing to historic levels in Doha at the current World Championships.
Instead, his transgressions were in using testosterone for reasons other than its medically approved purpose (by testing it on his own son to determine what amount would trigger a positive test); over-infusing L-carnitine, a naturally occurring substance that converts fat into energy, into NOP assistant Steve Magness – who later became a whistleblower -and tampering with the doping control process to hide those tests.
In his own statement, Alberto said he was shocked by the outcome and will appeal the decision. He further wrote:Throughout this six-year investigation my athletes and I have endured unjust, unethical and highly damaging treatment from USADA. One thing we know, Alberto is no quitter. Even his most ardent opponents have to give him that.
So does anyone or anything else share in the blame, or is it Alberto’s to shoulder alone? Is there complicity in our win-at-all-costs culture and politics? Does the drive to maximize shoe and apparel sales by Nike play a role? Does the sport itself own some measure, guilty of long standing corruption while turning a blind eye to massive doping elsewhere but now exacting its pound of flesh on technical violations from a big public fish?
Is there any irony in this decision coming down in the middle of a World Championships in Doha, Qatar where nobody shows up to watch except east African day-workers given free tickets when a distance race is on the schedule but not even them when there’s not? Or is it simply the man in the mirror alone who owns the ignominy?
Al has always been a driven man. It’s what helped make him a great athlete. But it’s also a trait that has now brought him to this infamous end.
There aren’t many heroes to point to in this sad story, however it’s told. I’d suggest that youngsters should look to and learn from Emma Coburn and forget about what other people do, and focus instead on your own journey. Then bring your fight to the arena with a clear conscience and a hard determination and let the medals fall where they may.