Internet tangles and a doping scandal
I imagine everyone reading this has looked something up on the internet and found themselves in a tangle of links and pages. Initially drawn by a sense of curiosity, we lose ourselves in the news, but such directionless browsing quite often leads to unexpected discoveries.
Well, a little less than a month ago, I typed in the word “Ironman” (hardly surprising…). A couple of links later, I found a piece in the Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera that really struck me. In truth, it left me dumbstruck. Alberto Salazar – the head of the Nike Oregon Project, a man close to many of the best American athletes, people who had won regularly and broken athletic records – had been banned from the sport for four years and stripped of his accreditation for the World Athletics Championships in Doha. The accusation against him are incredibly serious: trying to tamper with doping controls, and trafficking testosterone and banned substances.
Alberto Salazar and three victories in the New York Marathon
Sports lovers will probably remember Salazar for his running days, in the marathon. He famously completed three consecutive victories in the New York Marathon in ‘80, ‘81 and ‘82. After his competitive running days, he tried his hand at various things, including managing a restaurant. However, in the mid-1990s he started to become a highly regarded coach.
His first step on this road was to almost manage to get a 37-year old Mary Decker to qualify for the 5000m at the Atlanta Olympics. I say almost because, on the eve of those Olympics, Decker was stopped from competing after a urine test showed a testosterone to epitestosterone (T/E) ratio above the allowed limited.
This is an indication Salazar was never, even in the beginning, someone who was completely above suspicion. By guaranteeing good results for those who put their faith in his methods, he not only built a successful coaching career. Yet, he also gained the respect of various organisations that genuinely invest and support sport. The best example is the Nike Oregon Project, which appointed him as the head coach.
Closes the Nike Oregon Project
Salazar worked closely with endocrinologist Jeffrey Brown. Unsurprisingly, he has also been caught up in the doping scandal, receiving a four-year ban from USADA. In the wake of this, Mark Parker, CEO of Nike, decided to close down the Oregon Project, where athletes like middle-distance runner Matthew Centrowitz, marathoner Galen Rupp and Brit Mo Farah had trained.
This matter concluded with some sad words from USADA chief executive officer Travis T. Tygart: “The athletes in these cases found the courage to speak out and ultimately exposed the truth. While acting in connection with the Nike Oregon Project, Mr Salazar and Dr Brown demonstrated that winning was more important than the health and wellbeing of the athletes they were sworn to protect.”
Doping? A sentence with no ifs or buts. But…
This is the moment a fifty-something like me really sits up in his chair because. While it is a mistake for a young athlete to dope, it is twice as bad for a seasoned coach to make people dope. Above all, doping must be condemned without any ifs or buts, in all forms, but we might be able to find a little bit of leeway for a twenty-year old.
Therefore, I cannot say for sure that, when I was that age, I would have been able to say no. Imagine try to stand up to a greying coach who told me, “everyone does it… you need to get yourself onto the level playing field and then your talent will make the difference….” It is normal for young people to trust someone and make mistakes.
You often hear something like, “if the facts turn out to be true…”. However, what sort of leeway can you give someone like Salazar, who even used his own children as guinea pigs for doped gels? He argued that “they could do it because they didn’t belong to any sports federation“? The whole thing is a bit surreal for me. I keep asking myself how such a person could have been entrusted with such an important, yet delicate role.
Umpteenth unwanted stain on sport
Personally, I see this as the umpteenth stain on the credibility of sport because. If we don’t ask ourselves the hard questions, then how can we defend sport against those people who claim doping is tied to interests that are close to many members of the very sporting institutions that are supposed to be fighting doping?
Well, personally, I can’t help but be suspicious when Christian Coleman, currently the fastest 100m sprinter in the world, is not only allowed to take part in the World Champs after missing three drugs tests (a breach that should have resulted in a two-year ban). And I become more suspicious when he goes on to win gold.
The American Coleman isn’t the first exception to the supposedly inviolable WADA rules. British cyclist Elizabeth Armitsead was allowed to take part in the Rio Olympics after the relevant federation (UCI) had initially suspended her following her third breach.
There are cases on the opposite end of the scale as well. Take Alex Schwazer. He paid his debt, as prescribed by the rules, for a serious office – his own fault. Yet, when it was time to redeem himself, he was basically hung out to dry as a scapegoat. That’s why, the authorities are still working to uncover the whole truth, so any inferences would be out of place at present. However, if things turn out differently to how they seem, explanations will be required…
Doping: we need to be clear
Today, the vast majority of honest, sincere people who love, play, coach, manage or govern sport hope for clarity. Above all, they want people like Salazar to be removed from sport. This is the only way sport can become credible again, and then so can sporting institutions and anti-doping bodies.
We truly need someone to show us the road ahead. We need strict rules and stinging penalties. And more importantly we also need proper education and culture. Yes, we need to ensure young people are able to identify with the values of sport. They need to understand that winning is about achieving the best that each of us can achieve. As Walter Chiari, a much loved Italian actor, would say, even love can be the greatest of all sporting acts. It is about giving everything, with honesty and self-sacrifice.
For example, sometimes I go to schools to tell young people about my first competitive time trial on a handbike. After finishing more than 5 seconds behind the winner, in an effort to console me, someone said I should look at Oscar Sanchez’s jawline as a way of implying. The implication was that he might be taking steroids or other banned substances.
This really unsettled me because. If that was what this sport required, then it wasn’t for me. But, I decided not to believe my fellow competitors were cheating and I threw myself into this sport. And it has proven to be one of the greatest adventures in my life. To paraphrase a bit Valentino Rossi, “imagine if I’d never tried!”
Look in the mirror to fight doping
In London, three years later, I defeated Sanchez and his companions. I took home a Gold that holds a wonderful place in my memories, because it is filled with every drop of my sweat needed for the victory.
This is what I tell those young people. When we doubt something, let’s remember to look in the mirror before deciding. There is nothing requiring this in WADA’s anti-doping rules, I know. However, perhaps examining our own conscience, once in a while, is and will remain the most effective anti-doping system. It might just be the best way to protect ourselves.