Five Quick Thoughts On David Epstein’s Nike Oregon Project Investigation

by Robert Johnson
June 3, 2015

Five quick thoughts on David Epstein‘s 5,000+ word piece on how past members of the Nike Oregon Project have accused Alberto Salazar of violating anti-doping rules.

1) David Epstein’s article is a must-read 

If you haven’t read Epstein’s piece for ProPublica on the Nike Oregon Project, please do so now. If you read one thing all year, it has to be this: Off Track: Former Team Members Accuse Famed Coach Alberto Salazar of Breaking Drug Rules(There is also a BBC version of the piece that is shorter, read the ProPublica One it has more detail)

2) The best kept secret in the sport is out – Congrats to Steve Magness, Kara Goucher and Adam Goucher for having the guts to speak on the record

Behind the scenes, some of the stories detailed in David Epstein’s ProPublica piece about Alberto Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project (NOP) have been making the rounds for years – at least in my circles.

Considering that I’ve been friends with David for years, considering that ex-NOP massage therapist John Stiner met his ex-wife on and used to live in Ithaca, N.Y. when I did, and considering that I recruited Steve Magness to run for me at Cornell, I’ve heard many of the anecdotes in Epstein’s investigative piece before. The running world is a bizarre small world.

In 2012 before the Olympics, after hearing many of the allegations, I spent several weeks working on my own story about the NOP. Magness was hesitant to go on the record – for good reason, given Nike’s and Salazar’s clout in the sport. I remember telling him something along the lines of, “If you don’t say something now, there very well could be a couple of medals hanging on some people’s necks.”

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It appears that actually seeing Rupp and Farah go 1-2 at the Olympics gave Magness the courage to risk his career and speak on the record with WADA and Epstein. Epstein’s investigation then gained momentum, he teamed up with the BBC and the allegations have finally made it into a public forum. None of this would have been possible had people not had the courage to speak on the record. It was incredibly important that Magness and the Gouchers spoke on the record so their statements couldn’t simply be dismissed as being from a “coach who couldn’t hack it” or “from athletes who no longer were good enough to get a Nike contract.”

I only hope that the many other unnamed NOP athletes that spoke in the report, hiding behind the security of anonymity, have the courage to come clean like Steve Magness, Kara Goucher and Adam Goucher.

Now that things are out in the open, the momentum changes. Instead of fearing a loss of an endorsement contract and being blackballed as a snitch, people with information might be encouraged to come out as they might appear more as a savior of the sport.

It's Time to Talk It’s Time to Talk

3) What happens next is key

It’s important to note that the report doesn’t appear to include a smoking gun that likely would result in WADA issuing a doping ban to any NOP athlete. Salazar could still be in trouble, though, as prescribing prescription drugs for off-label use is both against US and anti-doping rules.

Regardless of whether there is enough for any action to be taken now by WADA or the authorities, having the allegations out in the open in a well-written and researched article (and television documentary) is important because it often leads to more evidence coming out and more people willing to come out of the woodwork and tell people what they know. It often also gets the attention of federal authorities like the FBI and DEA who can do the real heavy hitting.

So this article should be an excellent start by Epstein that may lead to the ball rolling downhill fast.

Two of the biggest sports scandals in recent memory both started with exposes like this.

Epstein and Selena Roberts wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated in 2011 entitled, “The Case against Lance Armstrong,” that helped lead to Armstrong’s downfall.

In terms of the unraveling of FIFA, the Washington Post today has put out an excellent piece today – “How a curmudgeonly old reporter exposed the FIFA scandal that toppled Sepp Blatter” – that details how investigative journalist Andrew Jennings got the ball rolling in a long process that eventually led to the recent FIFA indictments. It all started with Jennings having the guts to ask FIFA head Sepp Blatter at a press conference in 2002, “‘Herr Blatter, have you ever taken a bribe?’”

That question led to an article that Jennings wrote about Blatter denying the allegations. And while the article and questions like that may have gotten him banned from FIFA press conferences, it let the non-corrupt people inside of FIFA know that he was on their side and they started providing him documents from the inside. That led to two books which got the attention of the FBI’s organized crime squad and the rest is history.

It will be interesting to see if today’s article and BBC documentary work in similar fashion. At the very least it should get a few people to speak on the record and get things out in the open. No need for people to hurl accusations behind closed doors anymore.

4) People have some explaining to do

As mentioned above, no single incident in the article appears to rise to the level that will result in an athlete receiving a doping ban (although Salazar could presumably be sanctioned) especially considering many of the allegations are my-word-against your-word type allegations. The key may be if other ex-athletes/Nike employees come forward on the record. But already, the allegations and some of the explanations taken together are very troubling. It’s easy to explain away one bizarre thing away but it’s very hard to explain away everything all together.

Remember, in dealing with probability, odds get multiplied together. If an allegation has a 1/8 chance of not being true, and you have three independent allegations, the odds of all three of them not being true are 1/512. And remember, it only takes a single anti-doping violation to result in a ban. Reasonable doubt about one allegation doesn’t cut it – all of them have to be explained away.

Here are three issues that I want explanations/better explanations for:

i) Magness’ “presently on prednisone and testosterone” photo coming from a test taken by the Nike lab:

Look at that lower right corner

Update: After watching the BBC show, I’ve also got a lot of questions about these pills that I didn’t realize Kara Goucher kept and says have Alberto Salzar’s hand-writing on them.

Kara Goucheer says that the "Cytomax" label was written by Alberto Salazar Kara Goucheer says that the “Cytomax” label was written by Alberto Salazar

ii) Salazar allegedly sending drugs to Galen Rupp in a hollowed-out book 

iii) The allegations of Salazar having testosterone in his possession and testing his own son for testosterone 

Salazar’s explanation for having testosterone in his possession totally defies logic given his heart condition. When you add that with the fact he allegedly had his own son use a testosterone gel and then drug-tested him to see if he’d test positive, it starts getting really hard to become plausible for a reasonable person to believe.

5) How will Nike react?

One last thing that warrants its own piece.

The key here may be how will Nike react.

Nike is one of the richest companies in the world. Its support of the track and field and the Nike Oregon Project seems to be a pet project of founder Phil Knight. The fact that a document from its own lab reported a possible doping violation, if not mislabeled (the photo in section i) above), is VERY big. Will Nike blindly support Salazar and the NOP like they did for years with Lance Armstrong or has public perception changed and they’ll demand answers and do a proper investigation?

We’ve always stated that doping would be a much more minor problem in our sport if the people that pay the bills – the shoe companies – didn’t tolerate it. It’s time for Nike to do some investigating on its own to get to the truth.

We do know one thing. Nike Oregon Project Matthew Centrowitz‘s response to the publication of the story was embarrassing. The fact that two prominent former members of the Nike Oregon Project (the Gouchers), both former Olympians, as well as a former assistant coach think coach Salazar is guilty of doping violations is not a “yawning matter” as evidenced by his tweet below. The fact another former NOP member says an employee of a Nike lab told him to take testosterone is not a yawning matter. The fact two different NOP members allegedly say that Alberto Salazar committed a doping violation by encouraging them to take “a prescription medication they either didn’t need or weren’t prescribed” is not a yawning matter. These are all possible anti-doping violations committed by Nike employees and/or coach Alberto Salazar.

This is no yawning matter – the integrity of our sport is at stake here. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. A few years ago, I was talking to a top international athlete about these allegations, which he’d already heard about. He said something along the lines of, “Do you think they’ll ever go down?” I was like, “I’m not sure. It’s really hard to convict people of anything in a courtroom – let alone in a doping case as hardly anyone ever actually tests positive. You almost need the Feds to get involved.” The athlete’s reply to my statement really struck me, “Oh I don’t mean go down by WADA. I just mean in the court of public opinion.”

On that front, things are already damning to say the least.

Discuss this article on our message board: MB: David Epstein/Pro Publica/BBC Story: Former Team Members Accuse Famed Coach Alberto Salazar of Breaking Drug Rules.

Robert Johnson is a co-founder of Questions or comments? Email him.

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