Not good, coach, not good.
The Swoosh has opted to discontinue its elite Oregon Project track and field program that launched in 2001 and was overseen by 61-year-old Alberto Salazar, a celebrated American track coach and former world-class long-distance runner. The move comes on the heels of Salazar’s recent four-year doping ban from the sport of distance running, and is welcomed by the sport’s governing body. The goal of the Oregon Project was to promote American long-distance running.
Following a six-year investigation, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency found Salazar guilty of tampering with the doping control process and administering improper infusions of L-carnitine, a naturally occurring substance that converts fat to energy. These actions were bankrolled and supported by Nike, according to an AP News report.
Although the verdict didn’t directly implicate runners involved in the project—including two-time Olympic medalist Galen Rupp and four-time Olympic gold medalist Mo Farah, both of whom denied using performance-enhancing drugs—the footwear giant decided that the scrutiny on all of the runners involved in the program was too great, warranting the closure. Nevertheless, Nike continues to defend Salazar and the Oregon Project, and perhaps an appeals process will shed more light.
In the latest development of this episode, World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) president Craig Reedie said that the organization is looking into athletes who trained under Salazar as part of the Nike Oregon Project and plans to retest samples. USADA officials are now sending all of their evidence to WADA’s headquarters in Montreal, Canada.
There is no question that concerns regarding doping in nearly all levels of competitive sports—from high school and college to professional—are growing both in the U.S. and abroad. In the lead-up to the 2020 Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo, the International Olympic Committee has pledged $10 million for anti-doping enforcement amid the emergence of genetic testing. About half of the money will help fund new facilities that will allow authorities to save pre-game samples for 10 years, making them available for reexamination as new testing methods arise. Genetic sequencing tests have been in development for more than a decade and could soon be put to use, with samples being collected and perhaps tested as early as next summer.
The new technology would allow blood doping to be identified weeks or even months after banned performance-enhancing drugs such as EPO had been used by an athlete. At present, some substances can be undetectable by testers after only a few hours. The gene test, pioneered by Yannis Pitsiladis, a professor of sports science and genetics at the University of Brighton in the U.K., could be the most significant development in the fight against doping since the introduction of the athlete biological passport more than a decade ago.
At WADA’s World Conference on Doping in Sport that took place in early November, the U.S. criticized WADA’s handling of a Russian doping scandal. Russian track and field athletes guilty of doping were banned from the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, and the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi were tarnished by a Russian government-backed doping scheme designed to help its athletes haul in more medals. The ongoing imbroglio has now imperiled Russia’s eligibility for next year’s Games.
Regarding U.S. high school and college athletes, the use of steroids and human growth hormone is prompting more schools and sport governing bodies to implement drug testing, including “reasonable suspicion” testing. In fact, many of the newer sports venues across the country are incorporating medical and drug testing facilities, and mobile testing centers are also rolling onto the scene. Even in the world of eSports online gaming, more attention is being directed to drug cheating, particularly concerning stimulants such as Adderall, and recreational drugs including marijuana.
The upshot to all of this is that there is growing national and international pushback against the acceptance and tolerance of athlete drug use. The new technology now coming to the fore will make this sort of cheating much more difficult to conceal, hence protecting the health of athletes and increasing fairness in competition.
The other good news? It’s not going to hurt Oregon as a sports destination. The state, a Mecca for running events, particularly in the Track Town USA area, has a strong reputation for track & field events (it’ll be hosting the Olympic Team Trials in June) – and that is unlikely to change.