Performance enhancing drugs have had a persistent place in sports for decades, and their utility has only increased as athletic achievements have been monetized. From Maradona and Armstrong to countless other athletes, long term health has taken a back seat to the glory of winning and the money that comes along with it. This storyline has had a long and muddying effect in professional running, including blood doping in the 70s, Erythropoietin (EPO), and numerous other performance enhancing drugs (P.E.D.s) used today. More recent methodologies have been refined to mask P.E.D.s, and the line between the legal and illegal use of supplements has been skewed to the point of being almost unrecognizable.
In 2001, famed American long-distance athlete Alberto Salazar started an elite professional running group to break through the dominance of the East Africans, with the backing of the world’s largest shoe manufacturer, Nike. This group would be called the Nike Oregon Project (NOP), and in its eighteen-year history has vaulted American Distance running to prominence on the world stage with several Olympic medals, American records, and World Records. Salazar would go on to be considered the most prominent distance running coach in the world, while behind the scenes rumors grew of his win-at-almost-any-cost philosophy.
These rumors reached a breaking point in 2015. Former assistant Steve Magness reported Salazar to the USADA for doping violations, alleging that Salazar used him as a guinea pig to test the effects of various supplements. This sparked a four-year investigation that culminated on October 1,2019, when Salazar received a four-year ban from the American Arbitration Association. Salazar is the most famous nonathlete to ever receive a doping sanction without any positive test for himself or his athletes. The ban was handed down based upon the arbitration panel’s decision that Salazar had committed three doping violations by participating in the administration of a prohibited method; attempting to tamper with the doping control process; and trafficking in testosterone.
Most notably, the panel noted that “[Salazar did not] appear to have been motivated by any bad intention…. [and] the [p]anel was struck by the amount of care generally taken by [Salazar] to ensure that whatever new technique or method or substance he was going to try was lawful.” One violation was from an experiment by Salazar on assistant coach Magness, where he administered a supplement, L-carnitine, but exceeded the legal limit allowed. Another violation arose because Salazar administered testosterone cream on his sons to determine if his athletes could be sabotaged by a competitor. Though no athlete of Salazar’s had been found to have violated any regulations, and it was viewed that Salazar had no malicious intentions, the panel brought down its decision for not following USASA and WADA rules by the black letter of the law.
The majority of doping cases in the news today are failed drug test or abnormalities in athletes’ biological passports. To see a coach receive a four-year ban when none of their athletes have tested positive is unheard of in sports and will reverberate through professional running. Throughout the AAA investigation, Nike funded Salazar’s defense and it was unearthed that CEO Mark Parker had some knowledge of the muddy water Salazar was treading in. Arguably, professional running has long benefitted from the grey area of utilizing “legal” supplements that are either new and unregulated or legal to a certain limit. This arbitration ruling will drastically change the way that professional runners operate in light of the AAA’s willingness to levy serious sanctions to protect the sanctity of the sport. As for Salazar, the NOP was disbanded a week after the AAA’s decision was handed down. Salazar has indicated that he will appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland, whose rulings are final.
This ruling is highly contentious regardless of what side of the line you find yourself on. Following the black letter of the rules, this ruling is a win for the purist who believes that those who degrade the work athletes put in over a lifetime should be banned. Some would argue the four-year ban did not go far enough. The other side of the argument is that although Salazar broke the rules, he did not do so maliciously and there are greater evils to face. The use of P.E.D.s has always had relevance in sports but even more so recently. In the 2016 Olympics the Russian Federation was set to have sixty-eight athletes compete, but all were banned from competition for rampant doping violations directly by athletes. This is illustrative to show that Salazar is not unique in his pursuit to gain an advantage on his competitor. The ruling’s long-term effect on drugs in sports is yet to be seen, as is what will become of Alberto Salazar, America’s greatest disgraced coach.
By Zachary Krause, Junior Staffer