Last week, after the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) announced that the Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar had been given a four-year ban for doping-related misconduct, several pro runners were emboldened to publicly express their opinion for the first time.
“Justice. I'm tired of having to hide my thoughts,” New Zealand’s Nick Willis tweeted. “The charade is finally over.”
Some, like Willis, seemed satisfied that Salazar had finally gotten his comeuppance. Others wanted repercussions for the athletes who voluntarily chose to work with a coach who’d had a questionable reputation for years.
With the possible exception of 1,500-meter runner Jenny Simpson—who said that she had no idea why anyone would choose to be part of a group with a “black shadow” hanging over it—few were as outspoken in this regard as marathoner Scott Fauble. In a Twitter thread, Fauble maintained that anyone who chose to work with Salazar should be persona non grata in the wider running community. He cited the case of former U.S. mid-distance star Mary Decker, who is widely believed to have been coached by Salazar when she tested positive for testosterone at the 1996 Olympic Trials.
“There still need to be repercussions for the athletes that got into bed with a dude who coached a doper 23 years ago,” Fauble wrote, adding that “races have to not invite them into elite fields, and not give them appearance fees.”
There are several problems with this position—the most obvious being that it operates on an assumption of guilt by association, rather than actual evidence—but it gets to the heart of an issue I addressed in an article earlier this year: If the Nike Oregon Project is inseparable from its head coach and founder, and if the latter gets convicted for violating doping rules, should we, as fans, still give OP athletes the benefit of the doubt?
It’s a question that is sure to loom over this weekend’s Chicago Marathon where the top two American runners are both Nike Oregon Project members. (Defending champ Mo Farah was a member of the Nike Oregon Project from 2011 until 2017.) Galen Rupp will be racing Chicago for the third time, after winning the race in his 2017 debut. Jordan Hasay has previously stated her intentions to go after the American record this weekend. Both runners were coached by Salazar until last Monday. (As a consequence of his ban, he is no longer allowed to communicate with them.)
Neither Rupp nor Hasay have ever failed a drug test. They have not been charged with any violation in relation to the Salazar ruling. However, that doesn’t mean things won’t get a little awkward at this year’s pre-race press conference in Chicago.
In the lead-up to the 2017 Chicago Marathon, Rupp told Runner’s World that he had not read the recent New York Times story about potentially illegal infusions of L-carnitine that had been administered to Oregon Project athletes. (An L-carnitine infusion of under 50ml is permitted by WADA; Rupp received such an infusion on January 5, 2012, according to the USADA decision.) Rupp said that he also hadn’t read the leaked USADA report that the Times story was based on.
As the recently released USADA decision on Salazar makes clear, when Rupp gave this interview, his coach had already been charged by USADA for anti-doping rule violations, which included, among other things, “prohibited IV infusions.” It’s theoretically possible that Rupp didn’t know about this and that his coach wanted to keep him in ignorance so as not to derail his training. Alternatively, Rupp may not have been allowed to speak on the matter publicly at the time.
Either way, with the sanctioning of his coach dominating the current track and field news cycle, it will be more difficult for Rupp to be as evasive this time around. He has been largely silent since the Salazar ruling.
For her part, Jordan Hasay told Runner’s World this week that the Salazar conviction had “come out of the blue” for her and that she learned about the news by reading about it on the Internet. Hasay, who says that she has never had an infusion or taken any banned substances, plans on holding off on making decisions about her athletic future until after her race this weekend. As for the critics who might ask why she decided to place her trust in a coach with a tarnished reputation, Hasay ceded that it was “a valid question,” but that she had never seen anything suspicious.
What about the Chicago Marathon itself? How do the organizers feel about the prominence of Nike Oregon Project athletes in this year’s race?
In an email, race director Carey Pinkowski wrote that as a World Marathon Major and IAAF Gold Label event, the Chicago Marathon only invites elite athletes who have cleared drug tests and have not faced prior performance-enhancing bans. Pinkowski added that it was ultimately not up to the Chicago Marathon to dictate whom athletes choose to train with. Furthermore, he noted that “denying a runner, who has met our standards, a chance to compete in Chicago does not fix the issues facing our sport.”
Fair enough. Though it should be pointed out that big-name marathons can decide for themselves whom they want to include their elite fields—at least when it comes to offering appearance fees. In this sense, it is less a matter of “denying” entry, so much as actively extending an invitation. (It is not publicly known how much Hasay or Rupp have been paid to compete in Chicago.) There’s also the not-insignificant detail that Nike is a major sponsor of the Chicago Marathon. Nike has stood behind Salazar in the wake of the USADA ruling and will be paying his legal fees as he seeks an appeal. Any action that the Chicago Marathon might take against Nike Oregon Project athletes is hence also an action taken against its principal corporate benefactor.
To be clear, this isn’t to suggest that Pinkowski is somehow forfeiting its duties to clean sport by keeping Salazar-coached athletes in its elite field. The race director of an IAAF Gold Label event shouldn’t make decisions based on how people feel on Twitter. Without any concrete proof that they did anything wrong, Rupp and Hasay have every right to compete.
As for Salazar, I think it helps to focus on the macro picture: an elite running coach was called out by multiple former athletes (and an assistant coach) at different points in time for perceived breaches of anti-doping regulations. This occurred despite the fact that these athletes were not themselves accused of doing anything wrong and were only going to make their lives more unpleasant by speaking out. As far as I know, there is no other instance of this in professional distance running.
Make of that what you will.