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Alberto Salazar doping scandal shows cycling isn’t only sport with rampant doping problem

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Alberto Salazar doping scandal shows cycling isn’t only sport with rampant doping problem 

BY TAMMY THOMAS 

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Wednesday, July 1, 2015, 10:47 AM

Testosterone gel. Therapeutic use exemptions. Thyroid hormone. When the BBC’s Panorama screened “Catch Me If You Can” — an investigation into alleged doping violations by Alberto Salazar and his Nike Oregon Project — the cycling fan community could shrug and say “so, what’s new?”

Admittedly, there is a frisson of pleasure to be had from your sport spared from being the doping whipping boy du jour. Cycling is still attempting to ride out the Armstrong scandal. We hold our noses and turn resolutely away from the bad smell of his Lanceness that continues to linger. We call him irrelevant to what is happening on the road now even as we continue to pick away at the scab, retweeting the articles about his long and continuing legal case.

Now comes the Salazar case. The celebrated running coach is caught up in allegations that he encouraged athletes to break anti-doping rules. The charges were laid out by the BBC in collaboration with Pro Publica’s David Epstein. Salazar waited a few weeks, then issued an open-letter rebuttal that ran over 11,000 words.

Salazar’s three consecutive New York marathon victories made him a superstar on the domestic distance running scene. But where African-Americans have dominated the sprint disciplines, the U.S. has struggled since the 1970s and the glory days of Bill Rogers, Jim Ryan, Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter to make any impact over the longer distances.

Now Salazar stands accused of experimenting with testosterone on his son, Alex. The reports say he gamed the therapeutic use exemption (TUE) system, in which athletes get permission to use a banned drug for medical reasons. In cycling, we know all about the use and abuse of TUEs within the pro peloton, and Major League Baseball has had to refine its own program.

Salazar is reportedly in the habit of referring his athletes to Jeffrey Brown, an endocrinologist and medical consultant to Nike, who is an expert in detecting hypothyroidism, a condition that more often affects post-menopausal women than healthy young elite runners.

At his peak, Lance Armstrong transcended what remains a niche sport. But running is a different beast altogether. Though all sports carry cultural significance through their ritual and drama, track and field can be traced to antiquity — we freight the act of running and throwing and jumping with ideals of excellence and perfection and purity. We don’t need carbon fiber gear and lycra apparel to experience the sensation of pushing our bodies to their very limits; when we watch elite runners, there is a kind of visceral, collective memory at play. These men and women are our avatars, if only we weighed less/drank less/trained more.

We have low expectations for cycling — a sport daubed by the dirty brush since at least 1896, when cyclists reportedly drank cocktails of cocaine, caffeine, and strychnine. But running is different; we need only hear the opening notes to “Chariots of Fire” to envision white-clad young men running on a beach. Track and field — the sport the rest of the world calls “Athletics” — links us back directly to the ancient Greek ideal of mens sane in corpora sano (a sound mind in a sound body).

While athletes wear white and run with the angels, cyclists wear black and roll with the devil. Armstrong’s doping conspiracy topped them all. USADA called the U.S. Postal Service cycling team “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” (A claim that might be challenged by victims of the East German “factories” that pumped young athletes full of steroids as a matter of Cold War ideology.)

But the reports on Salazar and his Nike Oregon Project punch a hole those easy, lazy assumptions. Alberto Salazar also brings the aura of his own athletic prowess to the table. For the U.S. public, Salazar offers an irresistibly compelling narrative that confirms and validates America’s self-image as “the best.”

What makes a great coach? Set aside their hidden skills, the behind the scenes moments and their perceived greatness rest on very simple foundations — the success their athletes enjoy and the positive publicity their success generates for coaches.

Born in Cuba, the son of an ex-revolutionary and friend of Castro turned outspoken opponent of the regime, Salazar was soon tearing up the college tracks of his adopted homeland. In a country every bit as hungry for sporting success as its Communist opponents, he was a gift, the very embodiment of the American Dream, a runner who had overcome a hated regime to carve a new life in the Land of the Free through the application of talent, skill and hard work.

And all the corporate might of Nike. It has been reported that Salazar, over lunch with Nike’s president, Tom Clarke, conceived the Nike Oregon Project, a combination of Salazar’s coaching and Nike technology that would revive the once mighty dynasty of American distance running.

The project has born fruit — most spectacularly in the 2012 London Olympics where Salazar’s athletes, Mo Farah and Galen Rupp, placed first and second in the 10,000 meters. By inserting himself very publicly into the narrative of that success, Salazar left little doubt that this was not a gold and silver for Great Britain and the USA but for team Nike Oregon Project.

Somehow, Salazar has escaped the doping spotlight until now. He coached Mary Decker until she tested positive for an elevated testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio and was subsequently banned in 1999. In 2006, he served as a pacesetter for Armstrong (sponsored by Nike at the time) at the New York Marathon and also coached Armstrong in the wake of his return to competitive triathlon at the Nike Oregon Project headquarters in 2011. Is there an elephant in the room, Nike?

It’s not clear what will happen next for Salazar. Fans are still digesting his open letter, and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is reportedly investigating the Salazar case. Meanwhile, we cyclists will have to savor the schadenfreude that comes from knowing we were right all along, that cycling is not the only sport with a rampant doping problem. We don’t want to say, “we told you so,” but, um, we told you so.

 

The above article can be found at http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/more-sports/tammy-thomas-salazar-doping-scandal-wheel-fun-cyclists-article-1.2277667.

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