Complaints that Alberto Salazar abused Nike Oregon Project members are no longer credible
A supposed doping scandal has shrunk to a handful of self-interested sleaze-mongers who continue to gain more than they ever lost from the whole drama
In June 2015, the BBC released an hour-long documentary, Catch Me If You Can, portraying the U.S.-based Nike Oregon Project as a hotbed of rule-bending, outright rule-breaking, and overall bad vibes. At the time, one of the figures who appears in the film had been keeping me apprised of its production for several months and was nervous about its release, anticipating that its impact was likely to dissolve not only Alberto Salazar’s coaching job but also the athletic careers of some of the program’s superstar distance runners and the personal and professional reputations of all sorts of big names.
Although it’s always easy to overhype such expectations, they seemed legitimate in this instance. Among skeptics, the performances of Galen Rupp and other NOP members were already in “too good not to be suspicious” territory; adding testosterone cream and the knowledge that Salazar had doped as an athlete1 to the mix seemed to up the odds that the on-camera allegations made against Salazar and Nike by Kara Goucher, Steve Magness, and others would blow the program apart and terminate or irreversibly besmirch the careers of some of the athletes involved. As a believer that Rupp, Mo Farah, and others had surely done more than artfully navigate an ethical “gray area” to achieve their times and placings—a belief I maintain—I was among those expecting more actual dirt, not so much in Catch Me If You Can itself but in its proximate aftermath. Probably priming this pump was the fact that the two professional interactions I’d had with Salazar had ended unpleasantly.
It took over four years, but in September 2019, while he was in Qatar for the World Athletics Championships, Salazar was handed a four-year suspension from coaching by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Although his listed offenses fell short of his haters’ expectations or at least their desires, a lot had gone on in the interim and the haters were still glad to see him gone. I was one of them. I was and am convinced that more was in play in Portland than tampering with medical records and the improper use of an IV solution, even though these are serious offenses. Goucher, in the time since the release of Catch Me If You Can, had explicitly stated that the public could expect to eventually learn more specifics.
But the window for truly damning revelations seemed to have narrowed to a sliver if it was still open at all. Was a suspension of this nature all Goucher had meant to hint at? Her reaction suggested otherwise, but here we* were.
With Salazar thus sufficiently diminished, New York Times op-ed columnist and lying, self-absorbed hack Lindsay Crouse seized the opportunity to enlist Mary Cain to make a video about how Salazar’s abuse had ruined her forever (the original version, plus the accompanying article, is archived here). Although momentum was on Crouse’s and Cain’s side and an outpouring of support for Cain ensued, even some observers firmly in the anti-Salazar camp questioned the merits of Crouse’s video presentation from multiple angles. Bear in mind, this was before Crouse had displayed her willingness to fabricate an entire story (about herself, of course—she’s always the real centerpiece of anything she writes or tweets).
The main narrative emerging from the NYT hit piece was that if Salazar didn’t flat-out dope his athletes, he certainly abused them, primarily though weight-shaming and associated comments any sane, socialized person would indeed find abhorrent—at least in a typical social setting. Understandably lost in the emotional shuffle, however, was the fact that Cain, Goucher and others had signed up to be part of a team designed to produce the best runners in the world. In fact, Mary Cain’s own words in the NYT video included:
I joined Nike because I wanted to be the best female athlete ever.
I don’t know if Cain was coached to say that— the entire time, her words appear scripted by someone other than herself, based on what I’ve seen from her since, but who knows—but what people fail to realize is that this is not merely a bold statement of ambition and intention. It is a statement about an extraordinary and comprehensive commitment to something besides and beyond running more miles and running those miles faster.
No one reading this has ever been close to the best anything in the world. But some of you have been or are good enough at running to understand what absolutely must happen at the very pinnacle the sport.
I cringe at the idea of someone standing on a scale in what amounts to her underwear and being berated by a man she has entrusted with every bit of her livelihood that she needs to drop weight from her tits and her ass if she wants to be as good as she says she does. It doesn’t make the vision appreciably worse to imagine the recipient of this scalding treatment as a woman barely out of her teens, only because this is not a process to which any of us would willingly subject anyone we know, regardless of age or sex, unless we really fucking hated them.
But—and as someone who has dealt with some of Cain’s mighty struggles, I hate this “but,” please believe that—no one who has ever been among the best runners in the world has ever escaped some version of this treatment. The context matters. No great runner has ever simply trained their way to the top by being handed workouts and executing them, however mercilessly and for however many years on end. From the outside, it may look like things work that way; it may even feel that way if you’re an exceptional high-school or even collegiate runner, because talent plus training plus competitiveness alone will get anyone into the top 1 percent of the sport, and maybe even into the top one-tenth of one percent. But crossing the vast space between the lower bound of that 1-in-1,000 performance level and its apex is an uncomfortable journey no matter who’s driving the bus and how gifted the passenger is.
At a certain point, your advising team is going to question what might be keeping you from being, say, a 12:58 5,000-meter runner, which is Woody Kincaid in peak form, or a 13:20 5,000-meter runner, which is what Woody Kincaid often looks like when not peaking for a competition. I won’t link to any photos, but the difference is easy to pick up. And while 12:58 and 13:20 both make someone a one-in-a-million racer, only one of those times is world-class in 2021.
The advising team probably starts with eliminating or cutting back on your coffee, getting you sufficient sleep on a regular schedule, and enforcing other basic physiological constraints on your “harmless” whims and habits. Then, interactions with the outside world—with random fellators and critics on social media, and especially with journalists and podcasters—might be questioned or cut off because of their capacity to distract from the mission at hand.
And at every step, weight enters the picture. It has to. “Your body will find its best weight” is accurate enough for everyday runners, even fairly good ones. It’s also laughably off the mark for world-class distance runners. Especially world-class women runners, where the top is even lonelier.
The best female athlete ever.
When I was running my best, I was certainly putting in the training, averaging 15 to 20 miles a day over extended periods and logging some long, grueling workouts. I had a full-time teaching and coaching job, and often ran at 9 p.m. on winter nights. I had a dog and a live-in girlfriend who was great (but, go ahead and say it, maybe too great). I liked all of this. In these phases, avoiding alcohol was, while not “easy” in the global sense, an easy call in that I knew by that point in my life that any amount of it would not only soon wreck my training but my life. But the bad sleep habits and coffee guzzling and other otherwise trivial lifestyle shortcomings continued unabated.
Did these cost me? Probably not much, to be honest. But had I needed 10 to 20 more seconds in a 5K, I’m pretty sure a team of highly paid and aggressive analysts (the kind 14:58 guys don’t hire) would have found a great deal of room for improvement—all of which, despite my manifest commitment to some version of being the best I could, I would have balked at.
Why? Because I liked being fairly good at running, but not as much as I liked being a fairly good runner on my own terms. Those terms were brutal by most standards but a sham by those of a professional running enterprise.
Not everyone who has more talent than I did necessarily has the suite of personal traits that result in the potential to really be the best at a sport like distance running. In many ways this is a blessing; no one questions Salazar’s commitment to being number one, but he’s also not someone likely to be asked to compose and offer a warm toast to a colleague, if he still has any, on a social occasion, if he’s still invited to any. Not everyone truly driven to win comes off as an asshole to the rest of us, like Salazar does, but they invariably strike us as differently made.
Some clear-headed humans are, perverse as it may seem to the everyday yutz, bent on turning their bodies not only into machines but into something even more dangerous: A machine with cunning and an iron will. A machine with nonlethal but still killing intent. I can see the allure, and if you have ever enjoyed a film where one side uses violence or deceit to prevail over another, so can you.
If Alberto Salazar put Sifan Hassan on a scale and told her she needed to lose three pounds, my suspicion is that she would simply set out to do it, whether in the end it was a good idea or not. She might hate him for it in real time, or maybe not. But she would no doubt do it. Have you seen the murder in Hassan’s eyes when she is about to stomp someone on the track? Anywhere? We are talking here about a world filled with what may as well be circus freaks to the average person facing ordinary pressures.
The best athlete ever. Not just in the world, but of all time.
The running media and meta-media has kept up the pressure on Salazar during his suspension, which was upheld in July 2020 by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. In the meantime, Cain has enlisted the legal system toward the same end. The U.S. Center for Safesport, created in 2017 mainly to respond to allegations of sexual abuse by coaches of younger athletes, placed Salazar on its “permanently banned” list this past summer, a move that may prove to have no real teeth. Then, less than four months after founding a professional women’s running team named Atalanta New York, Cain sued Nike, Inc. and Alberto Salazar for $20 million, claiming that she endured sustained emotional abuse.
At this point, I have residual empathy for Mary Cain’s problems, but my sympathy for her professional plights is gone. I don’t think this is an uncommon reaction, even among people who laugh at the notion that athletes in any high-performance Nike-run training group have been historically limited to “gray area” ethical transgressions2.
Cain is no kid anymore, but she’s more than young enough to quit screaming about her life being over when she has a wealth of options to connect with others and produce good things, within and outside of a serious return to racing. She should accept that the NOP was a bad match, but that if it was as bad for the average NOP runner as it was for her, no one on the team would never have won anything significant or set any records, and people would be lining up behind her to sue Nike and Salazar for the same “abuse.”
WBUR, a Boston University-owned National Public Radio affiliate, recently hosted a bashing session of Nike and its methods. The show’s four guests included Crouse, the bug-eyed and brain-dead New York Times columnist who lies nonstop both on the job and off; Goucher, the retired professional runner and NOP whistleblower; Sally Bergesen, the clueless CEO of a Nike competitor; and Matt Hart, the author of an entire book describing the Nike Oregon Project as diabolical (and a New Hampshire native now living in Boulder).
With such a balanced and reliable slate of voices on hand, how could I resist listening? (Nike was invited to send a representative and declined, saying it couldn’t comment on matters of active litigation.)
NPR, sadly, is now as Wokish as it gets and no longer feigns pretense at delivering anything resembling news. Its programming is almost entirely bait for the shitlibs who attend, and send their children to, once-respected institutions like Boston University. As was the case even when NPR was worth listening to, the aloe-scented-robot voices of its hosts have seemingly been designed to deliver as effective a knockout blow as Mike Tyson with a Propofol-soaked fist.
Hart was the first guest, and his responses to the program’s host show that gets it; the title of his book is Win at All Costs. He seems to think Salazar was microdosing his athletes with testosterone (and perhaps he addresses this in his book); given the evidence trail, and since Salazar knows steroids work, I’d bet my life on it. He does, however, seem to go along with Goucher’s unlikely idea, that Salazar only started getting rabid about winning, as opposed to focusing on athlete development, after Goucher won a silver medal in the 10,000 meters at the 2007 World Athletics Championships. This is more than a little egotistical, but moreover, it is irrational. The idea that Salazar ever enjoyed some quiescent psychological period in which he could coach world-class runners without being supremely fixated on top results—in which he was not ultimately focused on winning—is absurd. This is like proposing that Tom Brady would be happy to earn another Super Bowl ring as a backup quarterback. Hart also notes that the likelihood that Nke could influence USADA and its global parent of sorts, the World Athletics Doping Association (WADA), cannot be dismissed.
Crouse comes on next and jabbers like an airhead about Nike being founded and controlled by men, and presents the thesis that men being in control of Nike is responsible for a lot of the company’s problems, even if this is because of ignorance rather than conscious malignance. Crouse, being both malicious and ignorant, is a poor choice of spokespersons to levy this charge, which happens to run completely counter to her various accusations of purposeful malfeasance by Nike actors.
Lindsay Crouse's dishonesty is a spreading stain, and anyone relying on her as a witness automatically loses their case. You can argue that I am conveniently poisoning the well by discarding whatever useful facts might emerge in a discussion that happens to involve a proven liar and parasitic opportunist, but I would respond with the idea that anyone who decides her inclusion is necessary to make a point has simply dispensed of the idea of trying to make an honest case. Anyone who knows she’s a joke but collaborates with her anyway because she works for a major media outlet is as bad as she is. And even people who remain unaware of her indisputable lying cannot be unaware of her incompetence and narcissism if they read her work at all and can read for comprehension. Finally, if a collaborator doesn’t know she’s a liar because that collaborator hasn’t done their homework and just knows who she “works” for, that reveals the collaborator to be a poor fact-gatherer in their own right.
Crouse keeps riding along on her undeserved employment at the NYT, and I continue to mention how awful she is not only because she keeps popping up everywhere but because she and her supposed fact-checkers refused to respond to me when I was somewhat nicer in my approach. Until people either wake up or wise up to her corruption and stop treating her as a legitimate voice, I will keep blasting away at her and anyone who consciously melds their opinions with hers.
I’m willing to entertain any cogent ideas about why anything in the above calculus might be in error. Until that happens, anyone who endorses her in any way tests positive for dishonesty.
I didn’t watch Nike’s Big Bet, a collection of “Did Salazar cross lines or not?” opinions from men both learned and daft, because the trailer was enough to convince me it was bullshit. For one thing, Malcolm Gladwell, who talks as much from his ass as from his mouth whenever running comes up, states that Salazar would never stoop to actual cheating, when in fact Salazar has—probably unbeknownst to Gladwell—admitted to using banned performance-enhancing drugs as an athlete himself. For another, Chris Chavez is asked to comment, and I am rarely in the mood for the blend of ass-kissing, language abuses, and bland, intractable stupidity that his beaming visage and flapping face invariably promise. He’s as useless as Crouse, and if those two mated, their offspring would be eating turds and other objects off the ground into their teens, if they survived that long.
I am told, however, that Goucher appears in the production to express a sentiment she’s expressed elsewhere: That she regrets the way it all turned out, that she laments the life she’s lived, and so on. This is either astonishingly naive or resoundingly insincere, maybe both. Goucher can pretend that she would trade in the accomplishments she racked up under Salazar’s guidance, or convince herself that she would have somehow gotten there without that guidance and would now be living in the same $3 million house. But what she can’t deny is that not only did she profit materially from Salazar’s guidance, but she is also today profiting from his tumble, one she had set in motion. If running had left a terrible taste in her mouth overall, she wouldn’t be eager to serve as a commentator (a prematurely capable and lively one at that.
She sounds, really, like an ingrate. She can hate Salazar all she wants, but has running really chewed her poor ass up and spit it out that viciously, given the responsibilities she willingly took on when she inked her Nike contract? She seems convinced that everything good she has is the result of her private fighting spirit and every pain she has ever experienced is someone wronging her. That’s not how life usually works, and if she really regrets what she has, well, that sounds to me more like feeling guilty about something she did, a regrettable choice she made, not sadness over something that was done to her.
The best female athlete of all time.
Anyway, it gets worse, all of it. University of Oregon head cross-country and track coach Robert Johnson found himself in Dutch this week, and some of his dingbat comments provoked some predictably wild reactions. My next post on this topic will segue neatly from this mess into that one; anyone decent at arithmetic can see why this makes sense. But the main point I want to make, which I will expand on further, is that what constitutes the legitimate mental abuse of an athlete does, like as not, scale with matters such as the coach’s and athlete’s stated expectations and how much the athlete is being paid to be an athlete. There is never a role for the outright and systematic shaming of an athlete, but these ongoing attempts to bury Alberto Salazar as an abuser are looking increasingly like desperate attempts to apply balm to the sting of a big dream not working out for Mary Cain all sorts of reasons.
In a document leaked in recent years by the Russian hacking group Fancy Bears, Salazar admitted to having used PEDs as an athlete to USADA, little more than a formality given how many Athletics West members were looped into the same activity forty long but pertinent years ago.
See above footnote.