Pulling a Fast One

Top coach Alberto Salazar accused of using testosterone and thyroid drugs to improve athlete’s performances

Arguably what gives professional sport its enduring appeal is the chance to witness the incredible. To see people achieve things the rest of us never thought possible; watch those few elite athletes who, despite competing against the world’s best and having seemingly already given everything, are somehow still able to reach down and find something extra inside themselves which allows them breakthrough the previous threshold and set new benchmarks for ability.

It’s good to see humanity’s envelop pushed just that little bit further once in a while, reassures us that our species are actually quite a sturdy bunch and if we’re all theoretically capable of doing something like that, then we’re probably going to be fine. Equally though this sense of collective pride may be the reason why it’s often so jarring on occasions when we discover that the something extra inside started life outside, in a lab.

It seems particularly ironic then that it is Alberto Salazar – a man who in his days as a superstar athlete became a perfect embodiment of this limitless determination so many admire, when he ran himself unconscious to win the 1982 Boston Marathon – who finds himself at the centre of the latest high profile doping scandal to hit the world of sport. Now a successful athletics coach, he currently heads up the prestigious Nike Oregon Project where he oversees star distance runners, Britain’s Mo Farah and the USA’s Galen Rupp.

Salazar is generally considered to be among the best in the world at what he does, famous for his intensive training philosophy and use of and the use of cutting edge scientific techniques. His approach was credited with guiding Farah and Rupp to the 10,000m gold and silver medals respectively at the 2012 London Olympics; however, while there is no current suggestion of any wrongdoing by Farah, allegations have emerged that Salazar may have given current U.S record holder, Rupp, who he’s coached for 14 years, banned anabolic steroid testosterone in 2002 at the age of just 16.

Boosting testosterone levels is a temptation to many athletes as it has the potential hand them a significant performance advantage. Not only does it build muscle mass, enhancing strength, it can also increase red blood cell production, as well as reduce the time needed to recover after a workout, by limiting the damage inflicted on the muscles by physical exertion, allowing competitors to exercise more intensively and frequently without the danger of overtraining and succumbing to injury or exhaustion.

Both Salazar and Rupp strenuously deny the accusations and notably none of the Nike Oregon Project stable of athletes has ever failed an official drugs test, with Rupp himself being one of the most rigorously tested athlete’s in America. Yet these most recent indictments come from a number of high profile sources, including ex staff and athletes who worked and trained there. Steve Magness, who served as Salazar’s number two in 2011 reports seeing documents detailing Rupp’s blood levels which said the athlete was on “testosterone medication.”

Magness said, “When I saw that, I kind of jumped backwards. Testosterone is obviously banned… everybody knew that. When I looked a little further I saw it was all the way back in high school – and that was incredibly shocking.” Since 2003, World Anti-Doping Agency rules have stated that any team members caught doping an athlete in their charge who is as young as 16 faces an automatic lifetime ban from the sport.

Salazar’s response to the case cited by Magness is to claim a legal supplement known as ‘Testaboost’ had been incorrectly marked as ‘testosterone medication’, and he went to say all further allegations are, “based upon false assumptions and half-truths in an attempt to further their (the sources’) personal agendas.” Magness parted ways with the Nike Oregon Project in 2013 and approached the U.S Anti-Doping Agency with his story. For his part, in a statement Rupp said “I have not taken any banned substances and Alberto has never suggested that I take a banned substance.”

However, testosterone was also reputedly been seen by various personnel at a Utah altitude training camp in 2008. When a massage therapist approached Salazar to ask about this, he was told it was part of a treatment for the coach’s own heart condition; something which several cardiologists and heart specialists have subsequently deemed highly unusual. Further suggestion has arisen of testosterone cream tested on human subjects in an attempt to gauge the exact levels which would trigger a positive drugs test, which supposedly Salazar told those close to him was to guard against sabotage of his athletes by rivals using the substance.

Also amongst the concerns referred to U.S Anti-Doping Agency, there have been at least seven to date, is Salazar’s use of the Therapeutic Usage Exemptions or TUEs; a stipulation whereby ordinarily banned substances are temporarily permitted to address an athlete’s injury or illness. Past Oregon Project runner, Kara Goucher, whose husband Adam was also previously a stablemate, has publicly stated that Salazar advised her in 2011 to take the thyroid medication Cytomel as a means of losing her baby weight after giving birth, in the full knowledge that Goucher had no prescription for the drug. On this Salazar stated: “No athlete within the Oregon Project uses a medication against the spirit of the sport we love. Any medication taken is done so on the advice and under the supervision of registered medical professionals.”

A athlete who operated within the Nike Oregon Project for a prolonged period of time but does not wish to be named, asserts that he was encouraged by a former Nike scientist to obtain both testosterone and thyroid drugs, as “this is what Alberto does.” The runner said, “I talked to some people that know sport. They started to put words to it – that’s micro-dosing – that is illegal. That’s a smart way to cheat, just give yourself small boosts of testosterone to keep you in the legal limit.”

The Gouchers claim their then-coach also attempted to manipulate TUE rules on behalf of Rupp in 2007 and ’11, with a view to securing an I.V drip to aid recovery, a practise prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency, with any attempt to exploit TUE procedures carrying a lengthy ban. Galen Rupp offered this clarification, “Earlier in my career, WADA required TUEs for my asthma medication…the few other TUEs I have applied for and received related to the treatment of severe asthma flare ups.” Salazar himself said, “I have never coached an athlete to manipulate testing procedures or undermine the rules that govern our sport… and follow the process for TUEs.” The couple also left Salazar’s tutelage in 2013 and likewise took their complaints to U.S Anti-Doping Agency chief Travis Tygart, the man credited with bringing down the recently disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong.

Salazar star pupil Mo Farah – a man who’s been a household name in Britain since 2012, after being one of three U.K athletes to win Olympic gold for the home nation on the same night, known there as ‘Super Saturday’ – why not implicated directly in any controversy has nevertheless felt the need to lend his support to his coach. “I have not taken any banned substances and Alberto has never suggested that I take a banned substance,” he said. “From my experience, Alberto and the Oregon Project have always strictly followed Wada rules and if there is ever a question seek guidance from Usada to ensure they are correctly interpreting Wada’s rules.” Farah has since gone on to state that if any foul play is proved by the athletic authorities he will leave the coaching setup.

The investigation into Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project is ongoing, but if indeed there is truth to be found in any these allegations against such a well-respected athletics establishment figure, coming so quickly on the heels of the Armstrong scandal, it only puts in sharp focus the challenge faced by the various anti-doping agencies if they’re ever to succeed in driving drug use out of professional sport. For Alberto Salazar himself, if found to be guilty, perhaps it simply proves how strong his desire to win remains; in the same way that the intense need for victory led him to push beyond the boundaries of what his own body would allow in Boston in 1982, similarly it now forces him to go beyond the limits of what we currently consider fair play.

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