Alberto Salazar, a coach of some of the world’s top distance runners, has been barred for four years from the sport for doping violations, the United States Anti-Doping Agency announced Monday night.
The penalty stemmed from violations that included trafficking in testosterone, tampering with the doping control process and administering improper infusions of L-carnitine, a naturally occurring substance that converts fat into energy, the anti-doping agency said in a statement.
Salazar was notified in 2017 that he had violated doping rules, and he contested the findings by USADA, according to an anti-doping official familiar with the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The case was heard in arbitration last year, and the ban was imposed by an independent arbitration panel.
As head coach of the Nike Oregon Project, Salazar, 61, has trained stars such as Mo Farah of Britain, a four-time Olympic champion on the track; Galen Rupp, the top American marathon runner; and Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands, who set a world record in the women’s mile in July and over the weekend finished first in the 10,000 meters at the world track and field championships in Doha, Qatar.
“I am shocked by the outcome today,” Salazar said in a statement posted on the website for the Nike Oregon Project. He said he had always followed the rules of the World Anti-Doping Agency and that he planned to appeal the ban, presumably to the international Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Jeffrey Brown, an endocrinologist from Houston who has worked with Salazar, also received a four-year ban, USADA said. Both have denied wrongdoing. Brown did not immediately respond to attempts to reach them on Monday.
Travis Tygart, the chief executive of USADA, said in a statement that Salazar and Brown had “demonstrated that winning was more important than the health and well-being of the athletes they were sworn to protect.”
In a statement issued late Monday, a spokesman for Nike said: “Today’s decision had nothing to do with administering banned substances to any Oregon Project athlete. As the panel noted, they were struck by the amount of care Alberto took to ensure he was complying with the World Anti-Doping Code. We support Alberto in his decision to appeal and wish him the full measure of due process that the rules require. Nike does not condone the use of banned substances in any manner.”
Salazar’s ban is the latest scandal in track and field and distance running, where so many doping violations have occurred over the years that every outstanding performance brings immediate suspicion from those closely involved in the sport.
Hassan released a statement from Doha expressing shock at the finding as she prepared to compete in the world championships.
“This investigation is focused on the period before I joined the Oregon Project and therefore has no relation to me,” she said. “I was aware of the ongoing investigations when I joined the team and have always had a clean conscience, knowing we are being monitored to the absolute fullest by Usada and WADA.”
While the credibility of distance running and Nike’s involvement will come under renewed scrutiny, so will the accomplishments of Farah, who won the 5,000 meters and the 10,000 meters at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, and of Rupp, who finished second in the 10,000 meters at the 2012 London Olympics and third in the marathon at the 2016 Rio Games. Hassan’s recent world record will surely also come under examination.
Farah is no longer coached by Salazar. He and Rupp have vigorously denied violating rules against taking banned substances.
Salazar was once among the world’s top marathoners, with three victories in New York (1980-82) and, most famously, one in Boston (1982). A fierce competitor known for always running as hard as he could, he nearly died after pushing too hard on a steamy day at the Falmouth Road Race in 1978.
His career mysteriously hit a wall in the mid-1980s, and he ended up battling injuries and depression. Salazar eventually became a sports marketing executive with Nike, and in 2001 helped form the Nike Oregon Project, a training program with the explicit goal of making American distance runners competitive again at major international competitions. His athletes had sporadic success. Many left the project critical of Salazar’s techniques. He has suffered from heart problems for years and spoke often about the fragility of life.
Along with his coaching skill, Salazar became known for operating in a gray area, using unconventional methods and pushing the envelope of what might be allowable under the letter of the doping rules.
A 2015 report by the BBC and ProPublica detailed allegations that he had experimented with testosterone, a prohibited steroid, and had pressed athletes to use substances like thyroid and asthma medication that they did not need for medical purposes in an attempt to enhance performance.
The 2015 report also described an accusation by a former coaching associate of Salazar’s that he had used his son Alex as a “guinea pig” for testing supplements and that the son had also admitted testing rub-on applications of testosterone gel.
In a rebuttal to the report, Salazar acknowledged testing a testosterone gel on his sons. But he said it was only an experiment to see whether runners could be sabotaged into a positive doping test if someone surreptitiously rubbed a banned substance on them.
In announcing the ban on Monday, arbitrators wrote that Salazar and Brown had sought to improve athletes’ performance “with a particular interest in increasing testosterone levels.”
Matt Hart is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, National Geographic and Outside magazine. He is currently working on a book about the Nike Oregon Project.