Nike Oregon Project Coach Alberto Salazar Gets Four-Year Doping Ban from USADA

October 1, 2019

On Monday night, after a multi-year investigation, the US Anti-Doping Agency announced that Nike Oregon Project head coach Alberto Salazar has been banned from the sport of athletics, effective immediately, for four years for multiple anti-doping rule violations.

Unbeknownst to the public, Salazar was charged by USADA for anti-doping rule violations in 2017 along with paid NOP consultant Dr. Jeffrey Brown; both men, with the support of lawyers paid by Nike, fought the charges, according to the BBC, which broke the story on Monday along with The Times. The case eventually went to the American Arbitration Association, where two independent three-person panels handed Salazar and Brown four-year bans from the sport.

You can view the full arbitration decisions here.

Both Salazar and Brown were found guilty of committing three violations of the WADA Code. Salazar administered a prohibited method (“with respect to an infusion in excess of the applicable limit”), tampered or attempted to tamper with the doping control process, and trafficked testosterone “through involvement in a testosterone testing program in violation of the rules.” Brown tampered with patient records, administered an over-limit L-carnitine infusion, and was complicit in Salazar’s testosterone trafficking.

Salazar, who has coached some of the most accomplished athletes in the sport — including Olympic champions Matthew Centrowitz and Mo Farah and multi-time Olympic medalist Galen Rupp — had been under investigation by USADA since a BBC/ProPublica report in 2015 by David Epstein and Mark Daly alleged he had broken anti-doping rules.

Several of the violations Salazar was sanctioned for were mentioned in the initial BBC/ProPublica story and an interim USADA report on the NOP that was leaked after a Fancy Bears hack in 2017. Those included allegations that, under Brown’s supervision, Salazar had conducted a doping experiment by rubbing testosterone on his own sons.

In its announcement, USADA wrote that, between the two cases, it “relied on more than 2,000 exhibits, which the AAA heard along with the defendants’ cases. In all, the proceedings included 30 witnesses and 5,780 pages of transcripts.”

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Our very preliminary analysis below.

Quick Take: Finally, a ruling

There had been questions about Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project for years, particularly in the wake of the BBC/ProPublica report in 2015, and after the leaked USADA report in 2017, we could not understand why Salazar had not been charged as he appeared to have violated the rules. Now we see he had been charged over two years ago, which makes a lot more sense.

Quick take: A four-year ban is huge

Via @percycerutty

Alberto Salazar — the most prominent coach in our sport, a man who has a building named after him at Nike — is banned for four years. It doesn’t get much bigger than that. Rumors about Salazar and his methods have been discussed in running circles for decades. The decision banning Salazar is legalistic. The BBC’s Mark Daly has a great piece providing overview on the ban, Salazar’s practices, and how we got to today. Definitely worth a read: Alberto Salazar: The inside story of Nike Oregon Project founder’s downfall.

(Editor’s note: Paragraph above added after publication)

Quick Take: Layman’s overview of doping violations found to be committed by Salazar

  1. Too much L-carnitine administered to NOP coach Steve Magness
  2. Salazar deliberately told his athletes that the infusions of L-carnitine they had were injections and didn’t need to be reported to USADA because he (incorrectly) worried this would constitute a doping violation
  3. Violated anti-doping code by conducting testosterone experiment on his sons

Charges not found:

  1. Gave too much L-carnitine to NOP athletes

Quick Take: Despite getting a four-year ban, the conclusions for Salazar are about as favorable as one could get

The decision determines what many suspected from documents that had been released by BBC/ProPublica and Fancy Bears: that Alberto Salazar broke anti-doping rules.

Assuming this is not overturned on appeal, he will be branded an official anti-doping rules violator. He will be banned from the sport for four years. That is pretty bad.

But given what we already knew after the Fancy Bears hack from 2017, the panel’s conclusions are as favorable as Salazar could have asked for as the decision concludes with the following statement:

“The Panel notes that the Respondent does not appear to have been motivated by any bad intention to commit the violations the Panel found. In fact, the Panel was struck by the amount of care generally taken by Respondent to ensure that whatever new technique or method or substance he was going to try was lawful under the World Anti-Doping Code, with USADA’s witness characterizing him as the coach they heard from the most with respect to trying to ensure that he was complying with his obligations. The Panel has taken pains to note that Respondent made unintentional mistakes that violated the rules, apparently motivated by his desire to provide the very best results and training for athletes under his care. Unfortunately, that desire clouded his judgment in some instances, when his usual focus on the rules appears to have lapsed. The Panel is required to apply the relevant law, the World Anti-Doping Code and its positive law enactments in the rules of international sports federations, in discharging its duty, and here that required the Panel to find the violations it did.”

Skeptics can argue with panel’s reading into Salazar’s intentions and argue that Salazar just wanted to ensure that certain things did not break the rules or that he did not care about the spirit of the rules. But the panel was very favorable when it read into Salazar’s intentions. It noted, “The Panel is not stating that Respondent set out to violate the Code, but that according to the Code’s provisions and Respondent’s actions in this case, he did so, seemingly unwittingly.”

The Panel accepted Salazar’s contention that the testosterone experiment conducted on Salazar’s son was actually done to see if Rupp or any other athlete could be sabotaged. The decision notes that the experiment came after the Oregon Twilight meet on May 9, 2009, when Rupp said he believed masseuse Chris Whetstine rubbed something on his back after the meet. Salazar, who many testified had long been worried about potential sabotage, became concerned that Rupp had been sabotaged and that night left a message on the “USADA voice mail system” about the incident expressing his worries. Salazar also emailed USADA CEO Travis Tygart that night to express his worries as well.

Regardless of the motivations for the experiment, the testosterone experiment was ruled to be against the anti-doping rules. From page 112 of the Salazar decision:

“Nevertheless, the Panel is concerned that this experiment was conducted at a reputable and well known training facility, by a very experienced and well known Athlete Support Person, with no actual justification and involving the administration of a controlled substance in potential violation of federal laws. While the Panel accepts Respondent’s contention that the experiment was designed to protect athletes of the NOP, it could have also been conducted as part of a nefarious attempt to “beat” the testing system and thus is susceptible to creating an appearance of cheating that one could argue would bring the experiment much closer to being “in connection with” an Athlete, Competition or training.”

Quick Take: We still don’t know if Alberto Salazar actually doped any of his NOP athletes

The decision most definitely does not prove that Salazar doped any of his athletes. It concludes what those of us following this already knew.  That Alberto Salazar carried out a testosterone experiment on his sons. That he misled some of his athletes on what they should tell USADA. That he had conducted a test with L-carnitine on NOP assistant coach Steve Magness that was over the legal limits.

While that constitutes a doping violation, Magness was not an NOP athlete. The panel could not conclude that NOP athletes got L-carnitine over the legal limit, writing on page 72, “A majority of the Panel finds that USADA has not met its burden of proof with respect to the Attempted Administration charge as it relates to the NOP Athletes.”

Salazar, however, was so worried about a) either committing a doping violation or b) being caught that he told his athletes false information so that USADA would not find that he committed a doping violation. That in itself was ruled to be a doping violation.

Quick Take: Salazar was playing with fire

Even if the arbitration panel said that Salazar often tried to ensure that everything he was doing was legal, one thing is clear: Salazar was not particularly interested in the spirit of the rules. The idea of placing limits on methods or amounts of prohibited substances is not for athletes and coaches to try to come as close to those limits as possible without going over them.

Yet Salazar, in his never-ending quest to find an edge for his athletes, viewed those limits as something to push up against — as long as he didn’t cross them, he was okay. But even if your goal is to come in just below the limit but not exceed it, if you try for long enough, you’re probably going to exceed it at some point. It’s like a driver who is trying to drive as fast as possible without exceeding 75 miles per hour; at some point, you may eventually find yourself speeding– even if that wasn’t your original intent. We can come up with worse analogies than speeding but it’s clear Salazar broke doping rules.

Quick Take: What was Nike telling its athletes the last two years?

The document shows that Nike helped fund Salazar and Dr. Brown’s defense. That begs the question: why did Nike — which clearly knew about the charges — continue to funnel athletes toward a coach who had been charged by USADA with multiple anti-doping violations? Did Salazar or Nike inform athletes such as Donavan Brazier, Clayton Murphy, and Craig Engels — all of whom joined the Oregon Project after Salazar was charged by USADA — that Salazar had been charged? And if so, why did those athletes still join NOP? What will happen to the athletes Salazar currently coaches, such as Murphy, Sifan Hassan, and Galen Rupp & Jordan Hasay, both of whom are running the Chicago Marathon on October 13?

(Editor’s note: Donavan Brazier and Craig Engels are coached by NOP assistant Pete Julian)

What about British Athletics, which looked into the allegations against Salazar in 2015 and gave Mo Farah the go-ahead to continue working with him? Will any of the athletes who ran under Salazar for NOP actually be sanctioned?

Quick Take: The CEO of Nike, Mark Parker, was involved

In July 2009, after Salazar had conducted an experiment rubbing testosterone in the form of Androgel on his son to determine how much would trigger a positive test, Brown emailed Nike CEO Mark Parker to inform him of the results. Parker responded with the following message:

“Jeff, Thanks for the update on the tests. It will be interesting to determine the minimal amount of topical male hormone required to create a positive test. Are there other topical hormones that would create more dramatic results . . . or other substances that would accelerate the rate of absorption into the body?”

Why would the CEO of Nike be involved with this? Very unusual to say the least.

Nike has released a statement backing Salazar.

Update: Alberto Salazar has issued a statement:

I am shocked by the outcome today. Throughout this six-year investigation my athletes and I have endured unjust, unethical and highly damaging treatment from USADA. This is demonstrated by the misleading statement released by Travis Tygart stating that we put winning ahead of athlete safety. This is completely false and contrary to the findings of the arbitrators, who even wrote about the care I took in complying with the World Anti-Doping code: 

 “The Panel notes that the Respondent does not appear to have been motivated by any bad intention to commit the violations the Panel found. In fact, the Panel was struck by the amount of care generally taken by Respondent to ensure that whatever new technique or method or substance he was going to try was lawful under the World Anti-Doping Code, with USADA’s witness characterizing him as the coach they heard from the most with respect to trying to ensure that he was complying with his obligations.”

 I have always ensured the WADA code is strictly followed.  The Oregon Project has never and will never permit doping.  I will appeal and look forward to this unfair and protracted process reaching the conclusion I know to be true. I will not be commenting further at this time.

Quick Take: The timing of this sucks

This is one of the biggest doping stories in years. Once every few months, we would hear from a source that a ban was coming for Salazar; nothing ever did. And now, when the news finally breaks, it’s during the middle of the World Championships in which several Salazar-coached athletes are competing. One Salazar-coached athlete, Sifan Hassan, won gold in the women’s 10,000 meters on Saturday and will be attempting to double later this week. Another, Clayton Murphy, is set to contest the men’s 800-meter final on Tuesday night. The timing of the arbitration ruling couldn’t be any worse.

Due to the complexity of the decision, the arbitration panel in July requested an extension until September 30 to issue a ruling. Both parties involved (that means Alberto Salazar) agreed to the extension. Salazar likely hoped he would be cleared, but it really is unfortunate for the sport that this ban came down in the middle of the World Championships. Usually we’re all for immediate announcement of doping cases (and we think it should have been announced when Salazar was charged), but in this case USADA should have waited to announce the decision. If our quick read is correct they could have legally waited 20 days to announce it.

Given the fact that the running world has been waiting for years for a ruling on this, couldn’t we have waited a few more days? Did USADA really need to announce its decision now?

Past LRC coverage of the NOP doping investigation
From 2015: LRC 
Everything You Want to Know About the BBC Nike Oregon Project Doping Documentary If You Didn’t See It
From 2016: LRC What’s Going On With US Anti-Doping’s Investigation of Alberto Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project? Documents and Audio From Latest Court Hearing Offer Lens Inside The Investigation
From 2017: LRC USADA: “It Appears Highly Likely” That 6 NOP Athletes Including Galen Rupp and Dathan Ritzenhein Violated Anti-Doping Rules

Discuss this news on our messageboard:

MB: Is Salazar and the NOP bigger than Lance was?
MB: Alberto’s Ban Makes Me Happier Than Anything in Sports in 2019

Note: After publication, this article was edited to provide more information regarding the testosterone experiment. We added in the final 3 paragraphs to the section of how “the conclusions for Salazar are about as favorable as one could get.” Also edited for clarity.

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