Note: This post was written nearly a week before Mary Cain published her experiences with Alberto and the Nike Oregon Project in the New York Times. This post deals entirely with the doping ban. My thoughts on Mary’s revelations are in a separate post.
Six years ago, I shared a bus ride with Alberto Salazar. It was the 2013 Chicago Marathon and we both had runners in the elite field. Security was tight, and the only way to and from the elite start was by bus. Going to the start, all went well, but on the way back, the bus driver got lost, winding up in a warren of underground parking garages. After several frustrating minutes, he halted. “Anybody want out?”
I’m not sure which of us was quickest to shout “yes,” but Alberto and I were first off the bus. I knew Chicago better than he did, and, with a bit of luck, led him through underground walkways and stairwells until we emerged near Michigan Avenue.
We were about a mile from the elite coaches’ viewing area, so we started jogging. Alberto was faster than me, but I’d spent the previous day scouting the finish, so I was the one who knew where to go. For about half the way, we ran companionably together. Then two black guys who’d gotten off the bus behind us passed by.
“Now the Kenyan coaches are beating me!” Alberto grumbled, and started to give chase—a problem, because the Kenyans were either going to somewhere other than the elite viewing area, or were going or were equally in the dark about how to find it. They overshot the turn in, with Alberto still trying to chase them until I managed to call him back and point him in the right direction.
Over the years, I’ve recalled this story many times. It is, quite simply, the quintessential Alberto Salazar story: funny at the time, but a microcosm of the hyper-competitiveness that would contribute, years later, to his undoing.
I first met Alberto in 2001, in the lobby of the Mia Hamm building on the Nike campus. My publisher wanted me to write a running book, but I needed a big-name collaborator, and Alberto was the obvious choice.
As a reporter, I was accustomed to talking to people at the top of their professions, but as a runner, I was in awe. I’d cold-called him in his office at Nike, asking if he wanted to coauthor a book, and was now about to meet one of the giants of the field.
But when I met him, he was the one who seemed nervous, and I realized that he was the one who saw this as a job interview. I was also impressed by the fact that while Nike had a building named in his honor, he kept far away from it.
Over the course of the next two years, we wrote two books, and everything about the process reinforced my initial impression. The Alberto Salazar I knew in the early 2000s was a man of generosity, humility, and kindness, underpinned by a deep religious faith.
When the doping investigations began, my initial reaction was shock, mixed with determination not to bury my head in the sand. I read everything I could find, including the arbitration panel finding that led to his ban. I came out of that process with three basic observations.
First, I believe the arbitration panel’s findings of fact are accurate. The evidence is overwhelming. Alberto did what they say he did.
Second, the rule violations for which he was banned are extremely technical. Most of the news reporting has attempted to simplify them, and in the process missed just how technical they are. The testosterone trafficking ban, for example, came because he, as a coach, gave a banned substance to another person (or persons): in this case, his sons. That’s it. It had nothing to do with giving testosterone to an athlete—just a “person.”
That part of the ban drew a lot of attention because the substance in question was testosterone, which he should never have been experimenting with in the first place. But the ban was simply for giving a banned substance to someone, anyone. According to that logic, if I were to give my brother—who is about as far from a competitive athlete as you can imagine—an energy drink containing ephedra (something that is sold in convenience stores), or a Sudafed, I’d be subject to the same ban. Not that I’m likely to be handing such things out, but the point is: is this the precedent we really want to set? What happens if a coach doesn’t scan the ingredients thoroughly enough before giving a cold remedy to their spouse? Fifteen years ago, buying someone a big enough cup of strong coffee (albeit a very big one) would have had the same effect, because excess caffeine was banned. The reasons for Alberto’s ban only look reasonable because it involved a big “baddie”: testosterone.
When I was working on the books with Alberto, he talked about the health issues that eventually ended his running career: his frustrations about them, and his ultimate acceptance of them. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said, explaining that it led him to realize that the intensity with which he’d approached running had caused him to neglect things that were even more important in life, such as his faith and family.
Then, the Nike Oregon Project blossomed and his old intensity returned…until the 2007 heart attack that nearly killed him.
In the aftermath of that heart attack, one of the NOP runners kept me informed of his recuperation. “He’s saying it’s the best thing that ever happened to him,” that runner told me, even before Alberto had gotten out of the hospital.
The third thing I wondered after news broke of Alberto’s ban was what this would do to his legacy. Because, whatever happens on his appeal, there really should be a legacy. He was one of the toughest competitors of all time. His 1982 “Duel in the Sun” Boston Marathon battle with Dick Beardsley deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest races, ever. On a different level, people like me are part of his legacy. He gave me my start, and without him, I would not be coaching or writing this article.
In the end, it may depend on how he deals with all of this when the dust settles. Even if he wins his appeal, his coaching career is over. It is very clear that, however technical the reasons for his ban, his competitiveness and drive for perfection led him to do things he should have avoided. But the Alberto I knew would eventually come to a single, startling response: It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.
One of my core beliefs is that our greatest strengths and weaknesses are often flip sides of the same coin. One side of Alberto’s coin is inscribed with the hyper-competitive perfectionism he had trouble shutting off: Now the Kenyan coaches are beating me. The other is the ability to introspect, experiment, and learn from mistakes: the deeply religious philosopher who can look at personal disaster and say: It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. His final legacy may depend on which side of that coin ultimately winds up face-up.