By Matthew Futterman
Nike has decided to shut down its Oregon Project, the elite training group run for years by Alberto Salazar.
The move comes 10 days after Salazar was barred for four years from the sport of distance running for doping violations by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
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.
Salazar has vowed to appeal the ban and just last week, Mark Parker, Nike’s chief executive, announced that the company was standing behind Salazar, a marathon champion in his 20s and the leading figure in U.S. distance running in the modern era.
In an internal letter released Thursday, however, Parker explained that keeping the Oregon Project in operation during the appeal was no longer tenable. “The situation, along with the unsubstantiated assertions, is a distraction for many of the athletes and is compromising their ability to focus on their training and competition needs,” he said.
Nike’s decision to close the project was first reported by Bloomberg.
Parker stated that Nike would continue to fund Salazar’s appeal. “A four-year suspension for someone who acted in good faith is wrong,” Parker wrote.
Parker, however, is hardly a neutral source. According to emails, cited in the decision from the American Arbitration Association upholding Salazar’s four-year ban, exchanged between Salazar, Parker and Dr. Jeffrey Brown, a Houston endocrinologist the Oregon Project used to treat its athletes, Parker was looped in on experiments that were conducted to determine the amount of testosterone an athlete could absorb using a lotion without testing positive for the banned substance.
Parker said last week, also in a letter to employees, that the test was conducted because Salazar was concerned that rivals might sabotage his athletes after a race. USADA officials have disputed that explanation, saying that it is disingenuous and that the goal of the test was to determine how athletes could get away with cheating.
In an email to The New York Times on Saturday, Salazar denied ever giving testosterone to an active Oregon Project athlete.
Reacting to the news of the project’s end, Travis Tygart, chief executive of USADA, said, “It is the right thing and now let’s hope they accept that mistakes were made and truly commit to clean sport and the health, well-being of athletes.”
The end of the Oregon Project is the latest development in a stunning downfall for Salazar and a fissure in one of the longest professional relationships of his life. Salazar has had a close relationship with Nike since he migrated to the Pacific Northwest from Massachusetts as a teenager to attend and run for the University of Oregon, alma mater of Nike co-founder Phil H. Knight. Knight started the company that would become Nike with famed Oregon coach Bill Bowerman shortly after graduating from Oregon, where he was a member of the track team.
Nike sponsored Salazar as a professional, when he won three consecutive New York City Marathons and became the world’s top distance runner. His running career cratered in the mid-1980s as he battled injuries and depression. Salazar later became a sports marketing executive with Nike, and in 2001 founded the Oregon Project. The venture emulated other elite training groups that were popping up at the time, notably the Mammoth Lakes, California-based Team Running USA, but with far more money, access to Nike’s scientific research labs, and with America’s best-known distance runner at the helm.
The biggest stars of the Oregon Project were Galen Rupp, an Oregonian who Salazar discovered when he was a teenage soccer star, and later, Mo Farah, the Somali-born Briton, who won four Olympic gold medals and then left the Oregon Project in 2017. Rupp and Farah have denied using performance-enhancing drugs.
For more than a decade the Oregon Project operated largely in secrecy. The wall of silence began to break 10 years ago, when a Nike scientist called USADA to report suspicious testosterone levels in blood tests of Oregon Project athletes.
The decision to close the Oregon Project came on the eve of the elite athlete news conferences for the Chicago Marathon. Rupp, Jordan Hasay and Farah are scheduled to participate in the race and were going to have to face public questioning for the first time since the Salazar ban about their training and their former coach, questions that would surely follow them as long as the Oregon Project remained in operation.
As Parker, a runner himself, wrote to Nike employees, “Alberto can no longer coach while the appeal is pending.”
“This situation, including uninformed innuendo and unsubstantiated assertions, has become an unfair burden for current Oregon Project athletes,” a statement from Nike released Thursday night said. “That is exactly counter to the purpose of the team. We have therefore made the decision to wind down the Oregon Project to allow the athletes to focus on their training and competition needs. We will help all of our athletes in this transition as they choose the coaching set up that is right for them. We will continue to support Alberto in his appeal.”