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Alberto Salazar: A Paradigm shift towards tougher regulation or just another impasse for clean competition?

Writes Philip Wade

The world of Athletics has been plunged into yet another doping controversy with the news that high-profile trainer Alberto Salazar has been banned for four years for various doping violations. Salazar was the coach of many Olympic and World champions, most notably double Olympic Gold winner at London 2012, Mo Farah. As a result of his ban, Nike moved swiftly to close their Nike Oregon Project which was a centre of excellence for Nike sponsored athletes primarily in the competition of long-distance running and the centre that Salazar has run since 2001.

Salazar has been on the radar of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) for some time and indeed had refuted allegations of doping violations in 2017. After a four-year investigation the once hailed Cuban born trainer has now been found guilty of “orchestrating and facilitating prohibited doping”. The large-scale systematic doping project has now been laid bare for the world to see. The charges against Salazar include trafficking testosterone, and administering a prohibited L-carnitine IV infusion. It was found in the report that he even used his son for testing.

While Salazar and Nike have moved to refute the allegations and stated their intention to appeal, the reaction of top-level athletes to the latest turmoil to embroil the world of athletics has, at best, been mixed. While some athletes, both previous Nike Oregon athletes including whistle blowers Kara Goucher and Steve Magness, and those with no connection to Salazar have moved to welcome the latest USADA decision, the reaction of some past and present high profile athletes in their unwillingness to tackle this serious issue in athletics has been deeply worrying. Three time London marathon winner Paula Radcliffe, instead of saying whether she agreed with the decision, focussed instead on the shortcomings of USADA and instead saw the decision as a face saving attempt by the governing body in the wake of a procedural error which allowed newly crowned 100m world champion Christian Coleman to compete in the Doha 2019 World Championships having missed three doping tests in the previous 12 months which would ordinarily have resulted in a ban. This is the same Radcliffe of course who is a Nike ambassador and who is married to the new coach of the aforementioned Farah. Farah meanwhile has distanced himself from the practices of Salazar, maintaining his stance that he has always been a clean athlete and never having tested positive. This is notwithstanding the fact he was coached by Salazar from 2011 until 2017 during the period in which the alleged offences occurred. Farah, in similar language to former Nike Athlete Steve Cram when refuting the allegations made against Salazar and the Nike Oregon project in 2017 called the process a witch hunt, although he decided to take a slightly different approach. Farah instead brought the focus onto himself rather than Salazar and instead referenced the fact that other black athletes such as footballer Raheem Sterling and Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton have been scrutinised unfairly by the British press because of their success. The protestations of Farah in this instance are both dangerous and just plain wrong. It was used a clear deflective technique, as was Radcliffe’s in sidestepping yet another high-profile embarrassment for a sport that is quickly losing its appeal with the wider public.

While some will point to the logistical constraints in getting to Doha, the largely empty stadium and dwindling TV figures only point to the fact that the paying public have had enough with athletics and they don’t believe what they see anymore to be real. It is high time that Lord Sebastien Coe and the IAAF stopped pointing the fingers at the accusers and helped to rid the sport of the convicted. But in the 2 weeks that have passed since the Salazar’s ban and the closing down of the Nike Oregon Project, we have seen the first ever sub 2 hour men’s marathon as well as the women’s world marathon record being broken by athletes wearing specially designed shoes by, you guessed it, Nike, and so the world goes round.