Interview: David Epstein on his Nike Oregon Project investigation

The respected journalist on his controversial story about alleged doping at the Nike Oregon Project and what comes next

Galen Rupp high fives the audience after his American record run.
Galen Rupp high fives the audience after his American record run.

Last week David Epstein, a reporter with ProPublica and author of The Sports Gene, published a story alleging, among other things, the use of banned substances inside the Nike Oregon Project, the professional training group based in Portland, Ore., and coached by Alberto Salazar.

Canadian 10,000m record-holder Cam Levins trains with the Oregon Project, though Epstein made clear Levins was never involved in his investigation in any way and he never spoke with Levins or asked him for comment. Canadian Running has reached out to Levins since the story was published with no response.

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We spoke with Epstein about the investigation and where it may go next.

Canadian Running: How long had you been working on this investigation?

David Epstein: I guess the BBC, it was a three-part film for them, and I think someone referred them to me for the third part, which was a look at the Oregon Project and that was sometime in the winter. I can’t remember when they first contacted me.

CR: Had you been thinking about doing something like this before they approached you or was it when they got in contact you became interested?

DE: I had heard rumblings about it and had started talking to people when I was at Sports Illustrated, but then, when I left SI, and wasn’t so much in sports anymore, it kind of fell on the back burner and I hadn’t been working on it. They approached me and had obviously heard some of the same things that I had so it seemed it made sense to collaborate.

“I think track has kind of reached a boiling point where the athletes themselves have become some of the loudest voices.”

CR: There’s a conversation which has been started over if this is pervasive in the sport. Was that something you intended?

DE: In terms of having a discussion, it was kind of shocking to me how angry some of these athletes are – and I’ve done doping stories before in hockey and college football, baseball, pro football, golf – these athletes mostly are kind of deflecting. I think track has kind of reached a boiling point where the athletes themselves have become some of the loudest voices. They were really interested in having it out there and, in my opinion, if we’re going to do that there should be as many on-the-record sources as you can get and as many real facts as you can rather than just one anonymous message board thread after another. Discussion was already going it just wasn’t going with any facts or any opportunity for anybody who these allegations are made against to respond.

“It’s pretty rare to have something like that and where you can present that sort of evidence.”

CR: What are the hardest things about approaching these stories? There are powerful people in communities they’re involved in.

DE: I think, from a reporters’ standpoint, it’s tough to get people to go on the record because it’s not really in their interest in many cases. But we felt we really didn’t have a story if it was all going to be anonymous and I think you can use anonymous sources for background or in cases where you heard something else similar. But in terms of things such as what Kara Goucher and Steve Magness were talking about, those had to be on the record. They’re talking about some powerful people, so that’s a challenge.

Also, for me it’s not something I enjoy, having the conversations where I have to ask the athletes some of the things I have to ask. That’s kind of challenging from a personal standpoint but from the journalistic standpoint it’s really just getting things on the record. That’s really rare. For example, Kara Goucher saved the bottle from a prescription drug that she says Alberto Salazar gave her from someone else’s prescription. It’s pretty rare to have something like that and where you can present that sort of evidence, so that’s a challenge, too, and sometimes you need more that just accounts.

“Why was he testing testosterone on his son? Or the thyroid medication he gave Kara Goucher or the pills Steve Magness said he taped inside of a book and sent internationally.”

CR: Would you consider this an ongoing investigation?

DE: I think a lot of it depends on Alberto Salazar’s response that he says is coming. There were some things we didn’t get any response to. Why was he testing testosterone on his son? Or the thyroid medication he gave Kara Goucher or the pills Steve Magness said he taped inside of a book and sent internationally. We never got a response for those, so a first step is if he makes detailed responses to those we’ll want to write about those and report more about those.

CR: Anything else you wanted to add?

DE: I know Alberto said that the people we quoted have an agenda, but I can’t really figure one out, particularly. We found them pretty credible, but I do want to hear his responses and I think people should consider them because I think that’s fair.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.