Nike’s Big Bet, the new documentary about former Nike Oregon Project head coach Alberto Salazar by Canadian filmmaker Paul Kemp, seeks to shed light on the practices that resulted in Salazar’s shocking ban from coaching in the middle of the 2019 IAAF World Championships. Many athletes, scientists and journalists appear in the film, including Canadian Running columnist Alex Hutchinson and writer Malcolm Gladwell, distance running’s most famous superfan. Most of them defend Salazar as someone who used extreme technology like underwater treadmills, altitude houses and cryotherapy to get the best possible results from his athletes, and who may inadvertently have crossed the line occasionally, but who should not be regarded as a cheater. (Neither Salazar nor any Nike spokesperson participated in the film. Salazar’s case is currently under appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.)
Salazar became synonymous with Nike’s reputation for an uncompromising commitment to winning. He won three consecutive New York City Marathons in the early 1980s, as well as the 1982 Boston Marathon, and set several American records on the track during his running career. He famously pushed his body to extremes, even avoiding drinking water during marathons to avoid gaining any extra weight, and was administered last rites after collapsing at the finish line of the 1987 Falmouth Road Race.
Salazar was hired to head the Nike Oregon Project in 2001, the goal of the NOP being to reinstate American athletes as the best in the world after the influx of Kenyans and Ethiopians who dominated international distance running in the 1990s. It took a few years, but eventually Salazar became the most powerful coach in running, with an athlete list that included some of the world’s most successful runners: Mo Farah, Galen Rupp, Matt Centrowitz, Dathan Ritzenhein, Kara Goucher, Jordan Hasay, Cam Levins, Shannon Rowbury, Mary Cain, Donovan Brazier, Sifan Hassan and Konstanze Klosterhalfen.
Goucher left the NOP in 2011, disillusioned by what she saw as unethical practices involving unnecessary prescriptions and experimentation on athletes, and went to USADA in 2012. An investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency followed on the heels of a damning BBC Panorama special in 2015, and picked up steam in 2017. When Salazar’s suspension was announced during the World Championships in 2019, he had been found guilty of multiple illegal doping practices, including injecting athletes with more than the legal limit of L-carnitine (a naturally-occurring amino acid believed to enhance performance) and trafficking in testosterone – but none of his athletes were implicated. (Salazar admitted to experimenting with testosterone cream to find out how much would trigger a positive test, but claimed he was trying to avoid sabotage by competitors.)
That Salazar pushed his athletes as hard in training as he had once pushed himself is not disputed; neither is the fact that no Salazar athlete has ever failed a drug test. Gladwell, in particular, insists that Salazar’s methods are not those of someone who is trying to take shortcuts to victory – that people who use performance-enhancing drugs are looking for ways to avoid extremes in training. That assertion doesn’t necessarily hold water when you consider that drugs like EPO (which, it should be noted, Salazar was never suspected of using with his athletes) allow for faster recovery, which lets athletes train harder – or that the most famous cheater of all, Lance Armstrong, trained as hard as anyone. (Armstrong, too, avoided testing positive for many years, and also continued to enjoy Nike’s support after his fall from grace.)
Goucher, Ritzenhein, Levins and original NOP member Ben Andrews are the only former Salazar athletes who appear on camera, and Goucher’s is the only female voice in the entire film. It was her testimony, along with that of former Nike athlete and NOP coach Steve Magness, that led to the lengthy USADA investigation and ban. Among other things, she claims she was pressured to take a thyroid medication she didn’t need, to help her lose weight. (The film reports that these medications were prescribed by team doctor Jeffrey Brown, but barely mentions that Brown, too, was implicated in the investigation and received the same four-year suspension as Salazar.) Ritzenhein initially declines to comment on the L-carnitine infusions, considering Salazar’s appeal is ongoing, but then states he thinks the sanctions are appropriate. Farah, as we know, vehemently denied ever having used it, then reversed himself.
It’s unfortunate that neither Cain, who had once been the U.S.’s most promising young athlete, nor Magness appear on camera. (The filmmaker did approach Cain, but she declined to participate.) A few weeks after the suspension, Cain, who had left the NOP under mysterious circumstances in 2015, opened up about her experience with Salazar, whom she said had publicly shamed her for being too heavy, and dismissed her concerns when she told him she was depressed and harming herself. Cain’s experience is acknowledged in the film, and there’s some criticism of Salazar’s approach, but Gladwell chalks it up to a poor fit, rather than holding him accountable. Cain’s story was part of an ongoing reckoning with the kind of borderline-abusive practices that were once common in elite sport, but that are now recognized as harmful, and from which athletes should be protected.
Gladwell asserts that coaches like Salazar have always pushed the boundaries of what’s considered acceptable or legal in the quest to be the best, and that the alternative is, essentially, to abandon elite sport. It’s an unfortunate conclusion, and one that will no doubt be challenged by many advocates of clean sport.
Streaming tickets for Nike’s Big Bet are available through Hot Docs.