25 Nov Careful what you wish for: Why getting into bed with Salazar mightn’t be such great news

British Athletics are due to announce that they plan to enlist the help of Alberto Salazar – the super-coach who turns also-rans into world-beaters – to consult on middle and long distance coaching in the UK. But, in an age when artificial performance is such a prominent topic of debate, how much do we really know about Mr Salazar and his attitudes towards drugs in sport?

Salazar got cross in the summer because some his athletes (well, Mo Farah to be precise) were being linked to drug scandals. He gave a defiant and angry interview where he spoke of the hard work and training that his athletes put themselves through. He is directly quoted as saying that not a single member of his group would ever ‘test positive for anything. No way in the world’.

Salazar conveniently forgot that one of his athletes in the past did return a positive test – Mary Decker cited birth control pills for her failed test in 1996 but was never wholly exonerated. His interview was also conspicuous for its absence of a flat denial that his athletes would ever take drugs or stimulants to aid their career – simply stating they would never be caught doing so. Indeed, he never addressed the widespread rumours of his group’s (perfectly legal even if ethically troubling) use of prescription thyroid medication to aid recovery. The coach’s links to Lance Armstrong and the BALCO scandal certainly do not help the ‘clean’ image that Nike (and presumably now British Athletics) attempt to portray.

In 1999, prior to coaching any athletes deemed to be truly at the top of the world game, Salazar gave a speech to the Duke University Law Review. In it, he makes the assertion that:

‘I believe that it is currently difficult to be among the top 5 in the world in any of the distance events without using EPO or Human Growth Hormone. While some of the top athletes may be clean, so many athletes are running so fast that their performances are suspect. This is compounded for me by the fact that the times these athletes are running just happen to coincide exactly with what top exercise physiologists have calculated taking EPO would produce.” (http://law.duke.edu/sportscenter/salazar.pdf)

1999 is a long time ago, and it is conceivable that Salazar has changed these views now that he coaches several athletes ranked in the global top 5. However, how can he credibly be surprised that people get a little uncomfortable with the monumental strides forward that his athletes seem to make? I am sure the coaches of 1999 got a little upset when Salazar accused their teams of being doped up to their eyeballs.

His protestations that his charges simply work harder than anyone else is a little naïve – you do not need to be an expert in performance enhancing drugs to know that drug cheats are rarely lazy. Rather they enlist artificial help to allow them to train harder, so that they recover quickly and can get back on the track (or the bike, or in the pool, or in the gym) and hurt themselves all over again.

This feeds into a wider debate on drugs in sport. One which has received much coverage on this site. The failed tests of Messrs Gay and Powell underline the fine line that so many top athletes tread between the legal and illegal. I have argued in the past that there are few athletes who have been caught that are actually bona fide ‘cheats’ in the sense that Lance Armstrong was. Rather they got lazy, didn’t check something they should have and got caught. Morally speaking, what is the difference between an athlete taking a drug that they do not medically need (but is not against WADA regulations) and one who takes a stimulant that is banned?

It is important to note that none of Salazar’s current crop of stars have ever fallen foul of doping regulations. But in an era when athletes and their supplementation is so acutely under the microscope, is it really wise for British Athletics to be welcoming on board someone of whom there are so many unanswered questions? Particularly given the recent high profile efforts of Lord Coe and other British luminaries to extend the ban given to those returning positive tests.

The ‘War on Drugs’ extends beyond the testing laboratories now – the convictions of Armstrong, Marion Jones and others prove as much. When you reach the top, everything you’ve said, done and intimated in the past will be magnified and examined. It’s time we got answers rather than angry denials.

  • http://eightlane.org/members/johnbicourt/ John Bicourt

    It’s inevitable that when any athlete produces a performance or performances off the scale from where they have been for the previous 2-3 seasons, eyebrows are going to be raised and rumours and opinions start doing the rounds.

    But a giant leap forward or a rapid rise in performance does not NECESSARILY mean anything unethical or at worse, illegal, has been done to improve performance.

    Even a top level athlete can improve through a better and more productive training programme, better diet, change of environment, better coaching, increased motivation and a whole range of other aspects which can have a beneficial impact on achieving maximum potential, without having resorted to PEDS.

    Do we believe that Dave Moorcroft’s giant leap forward with his virtually solo world record of 13.00.41 some 23 secs better than his previous 5k followed shortly afterwards by his near world record and defeat of a world class field in his 7.32 .79 3000mts win at CP, was down to something illegal? Or was it more likely that his training and motivation under the guidance of his highly renowned coach, John Anderson, finally brought out the best in him?

    The same can be said for Kelly Holmes. She was always and obviously a massive talent but the changes she made in pursuing a tougher training regime, with a ‘best in the world training partner’ and placing herself in the most conducive training environment abroad under the guidance of a new coach, had the same effect as it has had on Mo Farah; maximising potential when it matter.

    The fact that questions are being asked about Salazar is not surprising given what has been reported in different places but that doesn’t mean he’s guilty of anything illegal or unethical.

    Salazar has been a world class athlete himself. He has coached for a number of years and presumably honed his coaching abilities as any would and together with the Nike sponsored Oregon Project offering what we can only assume is the best possible environment with the best medical and scientific support where no stone is left unturned and everything is geared to maximising athletic potential, it’s hardly surprising Farah and Rupp, given their background, training with world class Kenyans and previous performances before Salazar, they would improve as they have?

    How did Coe, Ovett and Cram manage to be so dominant and break so many world records and win global medals? Did they take PEDS or have questionable coaches? Or was it because each had a perfect coach for them and a planned pathway that ideally benefited and enabled each one to maximise his potential?

    Then consider the incredible performances of Liz McColgan and after her Paula Radcliffe. Two obviously very driven athletes……. and that is exactly why they succeeded in being as good as they were. They each had a good coach, good support, trained harder than most of their contemporaries and managed to get all other aspects singing in tune as is necessary to be at the top.

    What it really comes down to is that plenty athletes have the potential to be far better than they are. Some almost get there others drop off long before but unless they have all aspects of what it takes for them to reach that elusive potential, harmonised and operating at optimum benefit, they never will. ………..unlike the ones mentioned, who have.

    NB: In 1992 at the Boston World Cross Country I met with Alberto, then employed by Nike, in his hotel room to pick up some Nike kit for Ismail Kirui who had just won the junior race.

    We got talking about his (Alberto’s) own current running and he enthused about having gone onto Prozac (a perfectly sport legal anti-depressant drug) which he said had completely lifted him psychologically and allowed him to train far better than he had in recent times…….. Two years later he won the the world’s toughest ultra marathon, the 56 mile Comrades marathon in South Africa which that year was run up hill from Durban to Pietermaritzburg


  • http://eightlane.org/members/trench491/ Trench49

    seems to be lot parniod fools on here taking easy option accusing people of being on drugs just because they worked hard & got success mainly by talentless deluded fools who lack the abilty or know how to improve their own failing running careers

  • http://eightlane.org/members/johnbicourt/ John Bicourt

    oooooh!…………. Someone’s got upset by you,James?….. (surely he doesn’t mean me??)

    Maybe it’s a personal message from Alberto?

    • http://eightlane.org/members/trench491/ Trench49

      dont flatter urself Mr 20% it general comment aimed at most under achievers on this board

  • Tarkers

    Trench49 does have a point – people (in all walks of life…not just on here) are quick to diminish the achievements of others as being ill-gotten, just because they themselves have never achieved the like…or know anyone else who has.

    That thing has never been achieved until the first person achieves that thing

    • Dustin Sweeney


      You are correct, but that’s not what the article is about. The point is one must tread softly when dealing with a company and a coach with a storied PED history. Honestly, a lot of this comes down to one’s moral code — if you’re willing to separate your ethics for something in the gray area of illegal drug use, then go for it; plenty of athletes and coaches get away with stealing championships and records while using legal or illegal drugs. The culture of a team and the culture of the sport throughout the nation and world is constantly at stake. How do we want the sport to evolve?

      It’s very important to select the company you keep, for that will often speak more of your character than anything else. What company do you want this sport to keep? We do not have to forsake our morals for speed.

      Do you want one of the best coaches in world claiming his athletes will never test positive, or do you want one of the best coaches in the world to be a trumpet player for cleaning up the sport? His words and actions in this sport matter greatly; or at least they should.

  • David Wardle

    If prescription drug misuse is a significant issue amongst top athletes (which appears to be the case given the huge number of athletes on Thyroid/Asthma medication for example) then why can WADA not publish details, and the athletes willingly submit their medication details? If you are already peeing into a cup in full view of the testers in order to prove your innocence then surely any sense of ‘privacy’ or embarrassment’ is a minor issue.

    If the athletes aren’t prepared to release this information (and I remember a particularly p***ed off Galen Rupp at a press conference a year or so ago saying that he ‘did not release his personal medical information’) then I think you already have your answer.

  • http://www.fitnessintuition.com runbei

    The author clearly has not read Salazar’s autobiography, or he would understand the integrity of the man. The notion that Alberto would condone or promote the use of performance-enhancing drugs is fatuous; it’s from outer space. H. L. Mencken famously called his fellow journalists a gang of pecksniffs – virtuecratic feeders of a thrill-seeking public that is ever eager to peer into famous people’s underclothing.

  • Adam

    “Being linked to drug scandals”? Are you stupid? Random people on message boards yelling “Farah dopez!!!!1111” does not qualify as a link to a drug scandal. Mo Farah could conceivably be the world’s most prolific doper, and Salazar could be the world’s least ethical coach. But saying that Farah has been implicated in a drug scandal is completely untrue and destroys whatever credibility you had.

  • http://eightlane.org/members/johnbicourt/ John Bicourt

    This is getting a little heated and also a little out of kilter..

    My original post fully supported Salazar as a man who had the knowledge, experience and the support environment of Nike to bring out the very best in the athletes he was coaching.

    I regarded him (and I knew him personally in the early 90’s) as having the same stature as the coaches of Moorcroft, Coe, Ovett, Cram, Radcliffe and McColgan and to which I would add Herb Elliot’s coach Percy Cerutty and Snell and Halberg’s coach, Arthur Lydiard, and of course there are many more who also produced world beating athletes.

    But, without assuming any wrongdoing, I would, however, question Alberto’s integrity in taking on Lance Armstrong and did so much for him in his marathon efforts (got him down to 2.44, I believe?) when he must have known all the rumours about his doping?

    • JonJacobs

      He didn’t coach Armstrong!!! He sent him some workouts that his athletes were doing but that doesn’t mean he coached him. Do some research before you post.

      • http://eightlane.org/members/johnbicourt/ John Bicourt

        Jon Jacobs:

        Are you kidding?

        It’s well documented, photographed and videoed of Salazar COACHING Armstrong and over a very long period.

        Your belief that Salazar “just sent him some workouts that his athletes were doing” is total rubbish.

        I suggest that it’s you who needs to do your research!

  • google image search….

    Google Image search: ‘Salazar Lance Armstrong’

    Oh and the whole point of salazar’s angry interview with the telegraph was the fact that farah and other were rumoured to be on the gear. so this authour isn’t the one who is actually saying there were rumours.

  • http://www.thegrumpyrunner.blogspot.mx/ Steve L

    Just because Salazar cited the use of drugs in ’99, does not me he was advocating them. Did I miss something?

  • Jim

    It should be pointed out that Mary Slaney’s positive was NOT overturned. According to the IAAF, she tested positive for testosterone. End of Story. And it should be noted her Epitestosterone to Testosterone test failed the old test parameters, which were WAY more lenient than the current ones. By today’s standards, her test would have been over double the high end of allowable.

    Additionally, we must remember Salazar’s relationship with John Smith, who has more convicted drug cheats that have gone through his stable then any other current sprint coach. As well as ties to BALCO.

    Lastly, the Nike excuse is flimsy. They don’t care unless it becomes a PR nightmare. THey supported Lance throughout and even when he admitted it, Phil Knight talked about being still open to the possibility of working with Armstrong again.

    Does that mean he is guilty? No, but associating with known coaches who have a legitimate drug history, is beyond stupid, at best.

    This post isn’t meant to incriminate Salazar I don’t think. Instead, it’s meant to call awareness to a not so squeaky clean record. Nothing that condemn or convict, so we must give benefit of the doubt. But much more smoke then just rumor mongers on message boards. And the items brought up have never been addressed, not even in his book.

    Good on you eightlane, for publishing such questions that should be asked.

  • DavidWardle

    Autobiographies don’t tend to be particularly negative in my experience. It doesn’t take a lot of digging to find dubious connections between Nike – Athletics West – Doping in the 80’s….


  • http://eightlane.org/members/johnbicourt/ John Bicourt

    The revelation in the linked-to article doesn’t surprise me one bit. So the question is, have Nike changed their spots? Or have they just got ahead of the game in their pursuit for Nike athletes success?

    Maybe Panorama would find the Nike set up very interesting. And not just in athletics?