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.