Alberto Salazar: The inside story of Nike Oregon Project founder’s downfall

By Mark Daly

BBC Panorama

That Alberto Salazar – one of the world’s most famous athletics coaches – has been found guilty of doping violations will send shockwaves through the sport. Here, Mark Daly – the BBC reporter whose Panorama programme sparked the United States Anti-Doping Agency investigations – reveals the inside story of Salazar’s downfall.

The investigation begins

For years there had been rumours. But they were just that – rumours.

In 2013 I began working on a story about doping in athletics.

Initially, we’d been focusing on historical claims of doping by famous British athletes in the 1980s. But in the course of that reporting, athletes and coaches began to share with me rumours of much more recent misconduct. They urged me to delve deeper into an ongoing problem, rather than only historical ones. They pointed to one of the most prominent figures in the history of the sport: Alberto Salazar, coach of Britain’s Mo Farah.

At that time, Farah was riding high – having just secured a historic Olympic and world ‘double-double’ in the distance track events. Salazar, his mentor, had been credited for transforming Farah from an athlete struggling to win medals on the big stage into the world’s number one – and Britain’s most successful ever track athlete.

But the rumours about the American, while not public, were persistent in elite circles; whispers of unorthodox methods, athletes being given unnecessary prescriptions and even the use of banned substances and methods at the prestigious Nike Oregon Project (NOP) over which Salazar presided.

Salazar was legendary in US athletics circles, and the most prominent running coach in the world. Winner of the New York Marathon three years in a row from 1980-82, he had once pushed so hard in a race he ran himself unconscious and had the last rites administered.

Salazar remains more famous in the US than any athletes currently competing. If he was cheating, this was going to be a tough story to break.

The background – Salazar’s rise

Salazar founded NOP in 2001.

A long-time friend of Nike founder Phil Knight, Salazar persuaded Nike that if it bankrolled his dream project, he could end the track dominance of the east Africans. If anyone could deliver this plan for Nike, it was Salazar. He was completely embedded into the company’s DNA; he’d been a Nike athlete throughout his career and even had the famous Swoosh tattooed on his arm.

In the grand scheme of Nike finances, athletics is small business, but an enormous part of its corporate identity. Within Nike’s sprawling 286-acre Beaverton campus in Oregon, built around the man-made Lake Nike, shrines to the company’s athletics pioneers are easily found. One can enter the Alberto Salazar Building, or even the six-storey Seb Coe Building.

Salazar was one of the most powerful and revered coaches in the sport. He embraced the latest innovations – altitude tents fitted around the beds of his top athletes, long sessions on underwater and zero-gravity treadmills. He sought to influence every aspect of his athlete’s life and left nothing to chance. His attention to detail was known to be exquisite.

But by the time Farah arrived in 2011, NOP had enjoyed limited success. It had been built around Salazar’s protege Galen Rupp. Salazar discovered Rupp aged 15, but so far the American had failed to deliver on the world stage. It would be Farah – 18 months later, in the 10,000m on London’s Super Saturday – who would win the first Olympic title for the Oregon Project.

To cap it all, Salazar’s favoured athlete – Rupp – took the silver, just a few strides behind. It was Salazar’s crowning moment. It was also the tipping point for the man who would ultimately help bring him down.

The whistleblower

Steve Magness had been a promising athlete, posting one of the fastest US high school times for the mile (four minutes one second). He turned to coaching in his early 20s and was spotted by Salazar, who brought him to NOP. He spent 18 months as Salazar’s assistant coach, leaving just before London 2012.

He would later tell me that watching the Farah-Rupp Olympic one-two was “one of the most disheartening moments of my life”. Some months later, he emailed the United States Anti-Doping Agency (Usada), saying: “Look into the Nike Oregon Project athletes… I’m strongly suspicious.”

Magness had several conversations with Usada over the next two years. But he became frustrated, wondering whether his concerns were being taken seriously enough. It was during this time we were introduced to him. I travelled to meet him in Texas, where he was enjoying success as a track and field coach at the University of Houston.

The walls of his house in Houston were adorned with athletics memorabilia, in tribute to a lifetime dedicated to running; a huge pile of well-worn running shoes occupied a whole corner of the living room. Magness is quietly spoken, thoughtful and reserved – a self-described introvert.

He chooses his words very carefully, which is why his allegations seemed so explosive – Salazar was cheating; of that he was certain. He told me about a document suggesting Rupp had been given testosterone; he recounted the dodgy experiments with the banned steroid to find out how much it would take to trigger a positive drugs test. He told me he thought this was “them trying to figure out how to cheat the tests, right? So it’s how much can we take without triggering a positive?”

He knew the risks of speaking out were huge and worried his career could be cut short. He would later tell me: “I’m essentially the David taking on the Goliath of the biggest company and some of the biggest, one of the biggest, names in the sport, which is absolutely terrifying because they [Nike] control the sport.”

Building more evidence

Magness wasn’t alone. Working alongside the US investigative website ProPublica, I had gathered testimony from many more athletes and support personnel with experience of NOP.

Kara Goucher was one. Under Salazar she had won a silver medal at the 2007 World Championships, and she told me he had been like a father figure to her. Goucher was US running royalty, and her testimony that her coach had crossed the line into cheating was excoriating. She recalled that Salazar told her to take a thyroid drug she had not been prescribed to help with weight loss before a race.

We were told Salazar had an obsession with boosting testosterone levels, and would act like a doctor at times, issuing thyroid and asthma drugs, painkillers, sleeping pills and massive doses of vitamins for dubious medical needs.

We learned he retained a trusted endocrinologist – Dr Jeffrey Brown – on a paid Nike consultancy to treat many of his athletes. In collusion with Salazar, Dr Brown would identify thyroid and other apparent abnormalities; he’d frequently prescribe thyroid hormone to athletes whose values would be considered normal according to standard reference ranges. Rather than treating medical necessity, his goal was to optimise athletic performance.

Athletes sent to Dr Brown’s office were encouraged not to ask too many questions. They would later tell Usada they felt “intimidated” and under pressure to comply with Salazar’s directions.

One former NOP runner – Tara Erdmann – said she was told to travel to Houston to see Dr Brown but had no idea why. She said: “What is going on? Why do I have to do this?” Still, she went along with it, even though “it was kind of scary”.

Another athlete – former American 5,000m record holder Dathan Ritzenhein – said Salazar would make comments like: “I can’t coach you if you don’t do this.” Ritzenhein had been put on thyroid medication even though his levels were in normal range.

Magness the guinea pig

There was now a culture in which it was nearly impossible to say no to Salazar if an athlete or assistant coach wanted to maintain their standing with him. And that is how Magness himself crossed the line.

In 2010, Salazar became aware of a legal supplement that could boost levels of L-carnitine – which occurs naturally in the body and helps convert fat to energy – and produce a significant performance boost. The problem was it took about six months of drinking the supplement to notice any difference. Salazar didn’t want to wait that long.

UK researchers had devised a method to produce the same result by infusing intravenously the supplement using a drip, over four hours. Salazar wanted to test this, and Magness was to be the guinea pig. Reluctantly, he agreed and the results were instant. “Almost unbelievable,” said Magness.

Salazar emailed his friend Lance Armstrong – the seven-time Tour de France winner, who was then training for an Ironman race. He wrote: “Lance call me ASAP! We have tested it and it’s amazing!”

The only problem was World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) rules stipulate infusions of any kind must be of less than 50ml – about three spoons worth – every six hours. It was against doping rules.

Realising this, Salazar changed tack, and for another six NOP athletes, reduced the infusion time to an hour. He assured his athletes it was within the rules, and in fact, Usada had given it the all-clear. It hadn’t.

“Both Dr Brown and Alberto told me it was good with Usada and I mistakenly trusted them,” said Magness. “It doesn’t excuse it. I take responsibility for what I did, but unlike the vast majority of people in this sport I did something about it.”

Ironically, it would be Magness who would find himself on the wrong end of a potential ban for his part in Salazar’s L-carnitine experiment.

Catch Me If You Can is broadcast

There had been some reporting about NOP previously in the New York Times and Sunday Times, but none had accused Salazar of out-and-out cheating.

We had whistleblowers ready to go on the record and do exactly that. It was nearly unprecedented, and it wasn’t lost on them, or us, that Salazar had the backing of the biggest sports footwear company in the world.

I was struck, though, by how resolute Magness had become. He was nervous leading up to the broadcast, as was I, but he had decided this was something he needed to do. He told me: “It would be much easier to just shut up, do my job. I’ve got a good job, got a good reputation…[but] I can’t. Because I’d be living a lie.”

Months of meticulous evidence gathering alongside my producer Murdoch Rodgers had gone into making the programme, with a huge amount of oversight from BBC lawyers. We asked for detailed responses from Salazar and Rupp. They issued firm denials, but were short on detail.

Our Panorama programme – Catch Me If You Can – was broadcast in June 2015.

After the broadcast, Magness was catapulted into the limelight – a position he says he did not relish.

He said: “It was hugely intimidating and also made you feel kind of powerless because your story, your identity, is no longer yourself… having no control over that is frightening… every bit of your life gets dissected.”

The story was headline news around the world, and with it came tough questions for Farah and UK Athletics (UKA) – the sport’s governing body in the UK.

UKA had made Salazar a consultant to its endurance programme, along with legendary British athletes Steve Cram and Paula Radcliffe.

We made and make no allegations about Farah, but questioned his association with a coach who was believed by so many of his former athletes to be on the wrong side of the line.

At an emotional news conference three days after the programme, Farah said his name was being “dragged through the mud”. He said he wanted answers from his coach, but refused to part with him.

Questions were now being asked over what, if any, due diligence was done on Salazar by Farah and UKA. Salazar had been coach to US athlete Mary Slaney, who had tested positive for testosterone in 1996.

“That’s the question I asked before [joining Salazar’s team in 2011] and Alberto said he wasn’t coaching her at the time,” said Farah.

But Salazar was coaching her at the time – and the questions were mounting. Some in the sport were urging Farah to part with the American.

Mo Farah angry at ‘being dragged through mud’

Salazar’s backlash against the ‘haters’

Salazar was not about to take the allegations lying down.

Three weeks after the programme aired, he issued a blistering 12,000-word riposte, denouncing the BBC and ProPublica’s journalism and demanding an apology.

He said he needed the testosterone for his personal use because he had been diagnosed with a condition called hypogonadism, which results in low testosterone, and produced a letter from a specialist.

He admitted the testosterone experiment, which used his own sons as “guinea pigs”, took place. But he claimed it was designed to protect against his athletes being “sabotaged” by someone rubbing testosterone gel on them after a race so they would test positive.

The whistleblowers were “haters” and we, the journalists involved, were “irresponsible”. He reserved his most damning criticism for Magness, describing him as a “failed coach”.

Salazar’s explanations seemed to be enough for NOP athletes. Rupp said he was 100% behind his coach, and Rupp’s parents emerged in the media calling the allegations “baseless and outrageous”.

But his response provoked as many questions as answers – and Usada was watching.

It would later emerge that just four days after the programme aired, Usada wrote to Salazar demanding explanations as well as evidence of his own apparent need for possessing testosterone. It followed that up by asking about the “sabotage” experiment.

So began a period of intensive investigation by the agency, led by Travis Tygart, the man who brought down Armstrong.

So what did UKA do? No allegations had been levelled at Farah, but his coach to whom UKA had entrusted its prized asset was now under intense scrutiny. UKA launched a review.

“That was just a sham,” Magness told me. “I mean, their investigation consisted of [a] 30 to 45-minute Skype call with me. So that sums it up to me, if that’s the extent of your investigation.

“That’s the shocking thing to me… forget the things that we don’t know – if you just look at the things he admitted to doing, like the experiment on testosterone to see if people would test positive…. some of the prescription drugs that he admitted to having and sending in the mail and things like that. That alone should be, like, red flag waving right here.”

UKA, despite taking evidence from several of the whistleblowers as well as from the BBC, found “no reason to be concerned” and gave Farah the green light to carry on with Salazar.

Some of the sport’s biggest names came out in support of Salazar, notably those with associations with Nike.

IAAF president Coe, then a paid Nike ambassador, stood by his “good friend” of 35 years. He said: “Alberto… is a first-class coach. Don’t run away with the idea that this [NOP] is a hole-in-the-wall, circa 1970s Eastern Bloc operation. It’s not.”

Salazar was confident Usada’s investigation would run aground and find no evidence of doping violations against him. “They will find Jimmy Hoffa’s body first,” he quipped, referencing the controversial union boss whose disappearance has never been solved.

Medals at Rio 2016… but Fancy Bears bite

The 2016 Rio Olympics came and went without a whisper from Usada. NOP was once again revelling in Olympic glory. Farah completed a historic double-double by winning the 5,000m and 10,000m, Rupp took bronze in the marathon, Matt Centrowitz won gold in the 1500m. Press reports suggested the Usada investigation had been quietly dropped. Farah gave an interview saying he felt “vindicated” for standing by Salazar.

But that bubble soon burst.

In February 2017, the Russian hackers Fancy Bears popped up with a series of devastating sports leaks. Among them, a secret IAAF list of athletes who were “likely doping” was published. It included Farah and Rupp. The pair were among 50 athletes secretly flagged by the Athlete Biological Passport, and subsequently cleared as “normal”. Neither has ever tested positive.

Then, a 269-page interim Usada report of its NOP investigation was passed to the Sunday Times by the Russian hackers.

The report painted a damning picture of a culture of coercion and secrecy at NOP and accused Salazar and Dr Brown of cheating and being cavalier with the health of athletes including Farah.

It said Salazar and Dr Brown “almost certainly” broke anti-doping rules over the infusion of L-carnitine. The report accused the pair of obstructing Usada’s investigation by altering some medical records and refusing to hand over others. Infusion guinea pig Magness noticed, when he read the leaked report, that his medical notes had been changed. NOP athlete Dathan Ritzenhein’s notes had also been altered; a notation indicating his infusion was just below the allowable limit had apparently been added.

Usada learned Farah had had an infusion in the UK. UKA would later tell an inquiry this was within the legal limits, even though it hadn’t been recorded properly. Farah has always strongly denied breaking any rules.

The report also reveals Salazar eventually agreed to be interviewed under oath by Usada investigators, who, after delving into his own testosterone use, concluded he had failed to provide adequate justification for possession of the drug, constituting a doping violation. The report, while strongly hinting Salazar may have started using the drug before he finished his running career, also suggests he may have used it on Rupp during massage treatments. Rupp has always strongly denied breaking any rules.

The publication of this top-secret report was obviously not what Usada wanted – but it seems to have forced its hand for it can now be revealed both Salazar and Dr Brown were noticed of charges in March and June 2017 respectively and both formally charged in June of that year with anti-doping violations. The charges related to the claims about testosterone, the L-carnitine infusions, and tampering with evidence to thwart doping investigators.

Neither Magness nor any of the other NOP athletes were charged.

It is understood that despite 10 NOP athletes agreeing Dr Brown could discuss their medical records with Usada, he steadfastly refused to do so.

Salazar and Dr Brown, armed with heavyweight legal teams funded by Nike, contested the charges. This meant the cases had to go the American Arbitration Association (AAA).

This was a hugely complex case, and one which did not have a slam-dunk positive drugs test to stand upon.

But Tygart’s team specialise in these rare, non-analytical positive cases (Armstrong being the case in point) and believed there was enough evidence to justify a lifetime ban for the coach. All of this was being done behind closed doors to protect both the innocent until proven guilty, and also the integrity of the cases. Once again, people started to think it all had gone away.

Shortly after charges were laid in 2017, stories started appearing in the UK press that Farah was seeking to distance himself from Salazar. He announced he was leaving the American in October that year, but not, he insisted, because of the doping allegations.

He said: “If I was going to leave because of that I would have done. If Alberto had crossed the line I would be out the door, but Usada has not charged him with anything.”

Only, it had. Farah insists he was not aware of this. Olympic champion Centrowitz soon followed him out of the NOP door.

Then, once more, all was quiet. In reality, it was anything but.

Hearings, like mini court cases, were held for each case in May and June 2018, during which witnesses, including Magness and Goucher, were grilled by both sides. Dr Brown was eventually compelled by the arbitrators to give testimony under oath. The AAA panel, consisting of three judges with experience at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, then retired to consider their verdict.

What happened on Tuesday?

Early on Tuesday, the arbitrators handed down their judgements – both Salazar and Dr Brown were guilty of doping violations and banned from the sport for four years.

Tygart said: “The athletes in these cases found the courage to speak out and ultimately exposed the truth.

He added: “While acting in connection with the Nike Oregon Project, Mr Salazar and Dr Brown demonstrated that winning was more important than the health and wellbeing of the athletes they were sworn to protect.”

Both were found to have trafficked testosterone, used banned infusion methods and tampered with athletes’ records.

Their bans begin with immediate effect and will send shockwaves through the sport.

What happens next?

This judgement can be appealed against, so it is perhaps not the end of the story. But it is surely the end of Salazar’s coaching career, and possibly even NOP. Salazar was NOP, and almost nothing happened there without his say-so.

This will have a seismic impact in the world of athletics. Several NOP athletes are running at the World Championships in Doha this week, and one has already won a gold medal – Sifan Hassan in the women’s 10,000m. Rupp is due to take on Farah in the Chicago marathon in a fortnight.

UKA supremo Neil Black is sure to come under fire for allowing Farah to remain at NOP following the Panorama programme. UKA stands accused of whitewashing its review and turning a blind eye to the concerns about the man who turned Farah into the world’s best; blinded by the promise of more gold medals.

And Farah? What this decision means is all of his greatest achievements on the track were delivered under the tutelage of a coach who has been exposed as a cheat and a doper. That doesn’t mean Farah cheated; there is no evidence he did. His judgement, though, will come under intense scrutiny.

Magness, who told me he “felt vindicated” and was relieved their “voices had been heard”, had this to say about Farah: “I don’t know what Mo knew or didn’t know. Only he knows that. But I know what he knew from 2015 onwards, and you got to face up to those decisions and who you tie yourself to.”

Farah could have parted with the American when the allegations first surfaced.

He didn’t – and the legacy he so craves will suffer as a consequence.