Allegations against Salazar draw mixed early reaction

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: L.E. BASKOW - Alberto Salazar is under fire for alleged improper training practices as a distance running coach.I was dismayed in recent days to consume the published doping allegations from seemingly credible sources regarding Alberto Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project.

A collaborative venture involving investigative reporters David Epstein of the New York-based, nonprofit website ProPublica and Mark Daly for the British Broadcasting Corp. suggested that, at best, Salazar pushed the envelope to questionable extremes with his athletes. At worst, he cheated.

Epstein, a former investigative reporter at Sports Illustrated, wrote a long piece for ProPublica, in which he referred to Salazar as "the most famous running coach in America, and perhaps the world."

Daly produced an hourlong documentary for BBC, which also included charges that 1980 Olympic 100 champion Allan Wells of Great Britain used steroids.

The reports came out on June 3 — National Running Day.

"Pretty ironic," says Portland's Evan Jager, the American record-holder in the steeplechase. "It blew up the running world that day."

In both reports, there were accusations about Salazar's prodigy, former Central Catholic High and Oregon Ducks standout Galen Rupp, with whom Salazar has worked since he was a 14-year-old high school freshman in 2000. According to the reports, Rupp — the American 10,000-meter record-holder who won the silver medal at the 2012 Olympic Games — has taken the banned substance testosterone since at least 2002.

Rupp, who has dealt with asthma since childhood, is required to get a therapeutic use exemption in order to use prednisone — a corticosteroid used to treat asthma — before a race.

Allegations against Salazar included experimenting with well-known doping aids, giving runners prescription medications to gain a competitive edge and even using his son, Alex, for testosterone testing.

Alberto and I go back 37 years. Our first interview was in 1978, when I was a young reporter for the Oregon Journal. He was a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Oregon, already a star distance runner who had come to Eugene in part because of his adoration for Steve Prefontaine.

I wrote about Salazar several times during the six years I covered track and field for The Oregonian, beginning in 1984 as he was prepared to run the marathon at the Los Angeles Olympic Games. At the time, Salazar was taking a "scientific approach" to running the marathon at L.A., visiting the U.S. Army Testing Laboratory in Natick, Mass., where specialists simulated conditions he would face in Los Angeles.

That was a harbinger of things to come for Salazar during his long, successful career as a coach of world-class runners. As a Nike executive and director of the Nike Oregon Project, Salazar used every resource available to ensure his runners the very best opportunity to succeed.

We've never socialized, but I would call Salazar and myself friendly acquaintances. He has always been cooperative with media requests both for him and his athletes, and I've respected the way he goes about his business and has gotten results we haven't seen in this country in more than three decades.

In statements released to the media, Salazar and Rupp denied all charges and said they are dedicated to "clean sport."

"I am very disappointed that the BBC and ProPublica and their 'reporters' have allowed themselves to be used by individuals with agendas and have engaged in such inaccurate and unfounded journalism," Salazar wrote. "Rather than present the facts, they opted for sensationalism and innuendo. ...

"I deny all allegations of doping."

"I expressly told those reporters that these allegations were not true," Rupp wrote. "Their sources admit they have no evidence, yet they print 'suspicions,' attacking me and sullying my reputation. That is inexcusable, irresponsible journalism."

No member of the Nike Oregon Project has ever been revealed to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency drug-tested Rupp 28 times in 2013, the most of any American track and field athlete.

Epstein and Daly interviewed many subjects but focused on four on-the-record sources, including Kara Goucher and her husband, Adam, who both trained under Salazar from 2004-11 before leaving the Nike Oregon Project. The others were Steve Magness, a sports science adviser who worked with Salazar and the NOP for 18 months in 2011 and '12 and is now track and field coach at the University of Houston, and massage therapist John Stiner, who worked with Salazar and NOP for an undetermined amount of time beginning in 2008.

"He is sort of a win-at-all-costs person, and it's hurting the sport," says Kara Goucher, who won bronze at 10,000 meters in the 2007 world championships while living in Portland and working with Salazar.

Goucher, who now resides in Boulder, Colo., abruptly left Portland in 2011 without explanation to the media. She and Adam had a son, Colt, in 2010.

"I was afraid to say anything," she says now. "I'm tired of saying I'm off the Oregon Project because I had a baby and I no longer fit in."

Following Colt's birth, Goucher says Salazar wanted her to lose her pregnancy weight. He suggested she take Cytomel — a synthetic thyroid hormone given to people for underactive thyroids — though she didn't have a prescription. Goucher says Salazar told her Rupp had a prescription for it. Four or five days later, Salazar brought her a bottle of the stuff.

Goucher — already taking a different synthetic thyroid hormone — called her endocrinologist, who told her not to take Cytomel. Goucher, who mentioned several other examples of what she considers questionable behavior by Salazar, was moved to tears during her BBC interview.

"For years, he was a super important person in my life," she says. "I mean, I literally loved him. He was like a father figure to me. This feels like a betrayal, and I feel really bad about that. But he put me in this position."

Magness produced medical records that showed Rupp — more than a year under the direction of Salazar — was on prednisone and testosterone medication during his sophomore year in high school.

"That was incredibly shocking," Magness said on camera. "It was indicative of the culture at Nike."

"I think it's going to break his mom's heart," Goucher told Daly. "There's no reason to be on that — none that I can think of."

Stiner connects Salazar with the testosterone medication Androgel and with the process of "micro-dosing" — giving low doses of testosterone to promote production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells that go undetected through testing.

Salazar, Rupp and Kara Goucher did not return my phone calls.

But I've spoken to several people — some off the record — with some knowledge about Salazar and his running group. One former Salazar runner told me he was contacted some time ago by Epstein, a former Sports Illustrated investigative reporter. "He has been working on this for 2 1/2 or three years," says the runner, who asks to remain anonymous.

Most said they weren't surprised by the allegations and that they have questioned Salazar's ethics during his coaching career. They said they wouldn't be surprised if Salazar has been breaking International Association of Athletics Federation rules.

Perhaps the strongest reaction came from Nick Symmonds, the five-time national 800 meters champion who ran collegiately at Willamette University and was a Nike athlete for many years, though he never ran under Salazar.

"There have been rumors for years, but I don't know that we can say definitively that (his runners) were cheating," says Symmonds, now living in Seattle and running for Brooks Track Club. "There's a lot of evidence and testimony to that effect, but for now, they are still allegations.

"It's pretty hard to argue, though, with how many people have come out and said they've seen what they've seen. There's a lot of evidence that points toward rule-bending, and at worst, rule-breaking."

Symmonds read Salazar's statement to the media with interest.

"I didn't like the way Alberto referred to the reporters in quote marks," Symmonds says. "You can't disrespect guys like Mark Daly and David Epstein. They're two of the finest investigative journalists of our generation. When they come out with a story like this, it needs to be treated with respect."

Performance-enhancing drugs were rampant when Salazar was running with Nike's Athletics West club in Eugene in the late 1970s and '80s, though there is no evidence he used them.

"At that time, steroids weren't considered to be as harmful as they are today," says Julie Strasser Dixon, who chronicled drug use at Athletics West in "Swoosh," her 1991 unauthorized book on Nike. "There wasn't a lot of knowledge about them.

"In the early years, was Alberto taking them? I doubt it. But I know many of his Athletics West teammates were."

Fast forward to more recent years, where Salazar's work with such runners as Rupp and Mo Farah has invited scrutiny from those both close to and far from the NOP scene.

Stuart Eagon is a former University of Wisconsin distance runner who trained with Salazar during the summer and winter months for two years during his time at Beaverton High. Eagon was on camera as part of the BBC documentary, telling a story of a trip to Raleigh. N.C., in which Salazar prompted Rupp to take prednisone before a training run.

"Stuff that happened 12 years ago is not pleasant to talk about, even if you're telling the truth," says Eagon, 29. "Alberto was instrumental in helping get me excited about the sport, teaching me some things necessary to run at a high level in terms of training and what needed to be done. He was good-humored, a good-natured person. But there was a side of him that really was win-at-all-costs."

An Oregon high school track coach, who asked to remain anonymous, recalls watching Salazar — then working with Central Catholic's runners, including Rupp — at the state cross-country championships.

"Alberto passed around an inhaler to all the runners," the coach says. "They all took hits off it. I've never seen a coach do that, before or since. I guess he was trying to get an edge. It's not in the best interest of every athlete. You don't know how the body's going to react."

The BBC and ProPublica reports say at least seven former NOP runners and employees have spoken with USADA and World Anti-Doping Agency officials, questioning Salazar's practices and the purported complicity of Nike.

"A lot of the experimenting happened in the Nike lab," says a runner who worked briefly with Salazar but was never an NOP member. "That no one at Nike put an end to this after so many years is concerning.

"There has been some serious manipulation that's gone on. The stories that have come out and the people who have said those things are substantial. It's not something to just glaze over and say, 'There's an explanation for all this.' There are some things that have gone on the last 10 to 15 years that have not been honest."

Nike officials have not commented on the Salazar stories. My attempts to reach John Capriotti, Nike's director of global athletics, through the company's public-relations department went unanswered.

"At some point, Alberto will have to go on record addressing these allegations," Symmonds says. "Nike typically handles things by not addressing them, expecting things to blow over. This one's not going to blow over. Nike (officials are) going to have to go on record saying exactly what they know."

In 2008, Jerry Schumacher left his job coaching Wisconsin to take a job coaching alongside Salazar with the NOP.

"Alberto helped get Jerry out here," says Jager, who came with Schumacher to Portland from Wisconsin that year. "He had something to do with getting all of us out here. Alberto and Jerry had separate running groups, but we were all under the same umbrella at first. We never worked out or trained together, but Alberto and Jerry would bounce ideas off each other."

In 2010, Schumacher broke from Salazar, forming the Bowerman Track Club under Nike auspices. A runner who never worked with either group says Schumacher's distaste for some of Salazar's policies was the reason.

"Alberto tried to push some things on Jerry," the runner says. "There some things Jerry and others observed that were concerning. Finally he said, 'I really don't want to be involved.'"

Jager says he can't confirm that account.

"I'm not sure the reason for the split," he says. "Nothing really changed for us runners, but we were no longer under the same umbrella."

After Chris Solinsky — a Nike runner and Schumacher disciple — beat Rupp on his way to the American 10,000 record in May, 2010, says Jager, "it seemed like we were less part of the same group and starting to become rivals."

I asked Schumacher for his reaction to the reports on Salazar via text message.

"It's still too early for me to comment on the situation," he texted back.

Jager says he was surprised by nothing in the reports.

"I'd heard some of the stories over the last couple of years," he says, "but I have no clue whether they're accurate. I've never seen anything first-hand."

Like Symmonds, Jager says he has never taken anything more than vitamins.

"I regularly take vitamin C and iron, to make sure I'm not going anemic," he says.

Since he first set the American steeplechase record in 2012, Jager says he has undergone random testing with USADA and WADA "about once a month," for which he is grateful.

"I don't think once a month is bad at all, especially for someone who is trying to compete clean," he says. "I'm more than happy to have them come into my house. It gives me a peace of mind that USADA and USA Track and Field are trying to make sure all the athletes are doing things the right way. If being inconvenienced from time to time means we can compete in a clean sport, I'm all for that."

Even so, testing doesn't mean some athletes aren't beating the system. When Daly mentioned that Rupp was perfect in the drug-test department, Goucher smiled.

"So was Lance Armstrong," she said. "Doesn't mean anything."

I'm wondering how all of this relates to the recent unexplained departure of 19-year-old phenom Mary Cain from the NOP stable. Cain spent the academic year at the University of Portland but has since returned to her home in Bronxville, N.Y. Salazar told The Oregonian they remain in communication and she is still a member of NOP, but could it be she, too, was displeased with her coach's philosophies and ethics?

Will this become a scandal of the proportion of Armstrong's, and the recent FIFA corruption investigations? It could.

I'd love the opportunity to ask Salazar direct questions about some of the accusations. I'd like to believe he has answers that would exonerate him.

In his statement to the media, Salazar made reference to "individuals with agendas." If he means the Gouchers, or even Magness and Stiner, that seems misguided. They have much more to lose than to gain by blowing the whistle on one of international track and field's power players, who works for the world's sporting goods giant. Backlash could be considerable, a reason why few were willing to go on the record with Daly and Epstein.

I'm torn. On one hand, common sense tells you that where there's this much smoke, there's fire. But there's plenty of gray area between pushing rules to the limit and breaking them. Direct evidence will be necessary to prove Salazar of the latter. Rupp's asthma will be a major bone of contention in all of this.

In the meantime, the lives of Salazar and Rupp may never be the same. The foundation built through 14 years of the Nike Oregon Project has been shaken. The ensuing months will tell if evidence will blow the house down.

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