Sports | May 21, 2021 6:00 am

For Some Reason, Nike Can’t Give Up on Disgraced Track Coach Alberto Salazar

The long-distance legend somehow still has the Swoosh's full support

Nike track coach Alberto Salazar
Salazar (right) is currently serving a four-year suspension for the USADA.
Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

No question, Alberto Salazar is one of the greatest long-distance runners in American history. He finished first in three straight New York City Marathons in the early 1980s, at one point held national records for both the 5K and the 10K on the track, and for decades had a successful second act as a coach, helming Nike’s famed Oregon Project.

But since October 2019, Salazar has been banned by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency over allegations that he “trafficked testosterone, infused a prohibited amount of L-carnitine and tried to tamper with doping controls.” And just one month after that announcement rocked the running community, former Oregon Project athlete Mary Cain detailed the abuse she and other women suffered while training under Salazar.

Cain detailed a perverse culture that had gone on for years, in which female runners were verbally abused, expected to take illegal diuretics, and given arbitrary, near-impossible goal weights. (For Cain, the number was 114 pounds.) Just a few years before Cain arrived in Beaverton, she was one of the greatest prep stars in American history. At the end of her tenure, her body had broken down. She endured amenorrhea (lost menstruation) for three years, and fractured five bones. In a viral video op-ed for The New York Times, “I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike,” Cain recounts hiding in closets to finish energy bars, afraid Salazar would hear the crinkling wrapper.

Add it all up and 62-year-old Salazar, currently appealing his four-year ban, is a veritable lightning rod. It’s little wonder, then, that a production company thought it was the right time to make a documentary about him. Nike’s Big Bet, released just a few weeks ago in Canada, is throwing some big question marks into the Salazar discourse. The film’s log line reads: “On October 1, 2019 Alberto Salazar, perhaps the greatest track coach on Earth, was suspended for doping violations. Did he do it? Or is Salazar being victimized for his obsessive methods of pushing athletes to their absolute limits.”

The title is in reference to the fact that Nike — which admitted enough wrongdoing to permanently shut down the Oregon Project — is actually bankrolling Salazar’s appeal to the USADA. A recent piece from Outside asks: “… if the Salazar brand is irredeemable, why doesn’t the Swoosh cut him loose?” Indeed. While none of Salazar’s athletes have ever explicitly failed a drug test, testimonies of doping and macrodosing go back years. Salazar was named in a BBC and ProPublica exposé in 2015 and a Times investigation in 2017. He has a pattern of withholding medical records, ignoring subpoenas and tampering with tests. There’s smoke, and there’s fire. So why won’t Nike let him go?

The most often cited reason is that Salazar’s competitiveness embodies the Nike spirit. His mad scientist ethos (most famously: those “high-altitude” rooms) and diabolical training regimens still endear him to many in the running world, superseding the controversy at his tail. Nike’s “big bet” is that the man so accustomed to winning can win this appeal, clearing his name and legitimizing all the years they spent investing in his philosophy.

Ultimately, this is deeply disappointing on the part of Nike — it means one of the biggest brands in the world, the label solely responsible for bringing American running where it is today, is essentially ignoring the allegations made by one of its former star pupils in Cain. Her testimony, mind you, was backed up by nine other runners in a Sports Illustrated profile titled “Inside the Toxic Culture of the Nike Oregon Project ‘Cult’,” which catalogued abuse going all the way back to 2008.

We’ve come a long way in this country in terms of learning when — and when not — to offer our heroes second chances. But it looks like we’ve still got a ways to go.