Doping Investigation Suspicions Surround Elite Nike Running Team

American anti-doping investigators believe that a Nike-sponsored team of elite runners coached by Alberto Salazar may be engaged in systematic deception. Internal emails suggest that the sportswear company has sought to hinder the investigation.

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By and


The story has all the ingredients of a tale of American heroism. It begins on a soccer field with a pale, 14-year-old boy from Portland with Dumbo ears and an overbite. He isn't particularly skilled with the ball, but to compensate, he runs faster and further than all the rest. On the sidelines, a track-and-field coach watches in excitement.

After the game, the coach speaks to the boy and not long later he begins his training regimen. Slowly, more and more talented runners join the team.

Nike, a sportswear manufacturer driven by the vision of seeing an American win Olympic gold in the marathon, becomes the team's sponsor. The high-profile event has been dominated for decades by distance runners from Kenya and Ethiopia.

The company offers the runners everything they need to become successful, including underwater treadmills and altitude tents where the athletes sleep to increase their red blood cell count. They have the best coaches, physical therapists and nutritionists, and the group even has its own logo -- a skull circled by a laurel wreath. The name reflects the grandiosity of the vision: The Nike Oregon Project, or NOP for short. It has now been around for 16 years and has dominated the track-and-field circuit for many years. It is a team that includes the best of the best and where money plays no role.

The athletes' training center is in Beaverton, Oregon, at the site of Nike headquarters. The team's coach is Alberto Salazar.

His team includes nine athletes. At the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, NOP runners took home four medals, with Matthew Centrowitz winning the 1,500 meter gold and British runner Mo Farah winning the 5,000 and 10,000 meter races.

But the star of the team is Galen Rupp, the boy that Coach Salazar discovered on the soccer field many years ago. Rupp is the athlete who is pursuing the dream; his mission is bringing marathon gold back to the U.S. for his trainer, for Nike and for his country. In Rio he won the bronze. And in three years, at the 2020 Games in Tokyo, he will be 34-years -old, the best age for distance runners.

What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a bit, as has now become apparent. One week ago, a secret report from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) appeared containing explosive information about the runners from Oregon. USADA is one of the most effective agencies in the world in the global fight against doping and it has caught a number of high-profile cheats like cycling star Lance Armstrong and Olympic champion sprinter Marion Jones.

'Risky and Untested Procedures'

In summer 2015, former NOP members spoke for the first time about the dubious practices employed by the Nike team and USADA agents launched an investigation. They confiscated emails and medical reports in addition to interviewing more than 40 athletes, coaches and practitioners of sports medicine before summarizing their findings in a report. USADA wrote the report for the Texas Medical Board because one of the NOP doctors runs a practice in Houston.

The cover of the 269-page document is marked "PRIVILEGED AND CONFIDENTIAL" and it includes reports of injections, transfusions and experiments with drugs. The authors write of "risky and untested" procedures designed to "increase the testosterone and energy levels" of the NOP athletes, putting them "in jeopardy of losing their athletic eligibility." It amounts to an accusation of systematic doping -- and it casts a murky shadow over the American dream of winning the Olympic marathon.

SPIEGEL obtained the report from the Fancy Bears hacker group along with hundreds of emails, PDF files and Word documents from the USADA investigation. Taken together, the information lays bare the extent of the cheating.

Just over two years ago, it was revealed that Russia had established a clever doping system to boost the performances of the country's athletes. The case in Oregon now shows that injections, pills and manipulations are apparently present in other parts of the world as well. And that it isn't just athletes, coaches and doctors who take part, but apparently sponsors as well.

'Extreme Athletic Excess'

Nike's headquarters in Beaverton are like a small city. There are white, bright office buildings dotted among parks, a lake and athletic facilities. The Nike campus also includes the red track where the NOP athletes do their interval training. Alberto Salazar can often be found standing at the edge of the track with a baseball cap on his head and a stopwatch in his hand. Salazar, 58, is a sports legend in the U.S., having won the New York Marathon three years in a row in the 1980s.

But his most famous race was his Boston Marathon victory in 1982. The race took place in blazing heat and Salazar drank only two cups of water during the contest. By the time he reached the finish line, he was completely dehydrated and paramedics had to pump six liters (1.6 gallons) of liquids into his body following the race. Later, U.S. President Ronald Reagan invited him to the White House.

During training, Salazar would sometimes run up to 300 kilometers (185 miles) per week, and his body didn't cooperate for long. Salazar retired from marathon racing in his late 20s, plunging him into depression. "I was famous … for my obsession to outwork any rival and for my absolute refusal to lose," Salazar wrote in his 2013 autobiography. "I lived a life of extreme athletic excess, as far gone, in my way, as a drug addict or alcoholic."

Pushing Athletes to the Limits

As an athlete, Salazar was merciless with himself, and it appears that he is just as merciless with the athletes in his charge today. Former NOP athletes have told USADA that "Salazar's workouts were extremely hard" and that the coach would punish those who grew tired too early by ignoring them.

One female athlete told USADA that she had once suffered an injury and Salazar had told her to "just run through it." When contacted for comment, Salazar said "I never push athletes to hurt themselves."

NOP team members earn around $200,000 per year, a dream salary for track-and-field athletes, and stars like Rupp and Farah likely make even more than that. According to the USADA report, Salazar decides who is allowed to run with the team, whose contract is extended and who has to go.

He employs "pressure" and "coercion," the investigators write. In some sections, the USADA document reads like a report from inside a sect. Salazar is also said to have banned his athletes from speaking about the agents and medications they take, even among themselves. And there is apparently a good reason for the rule.

'Safe-Keeping'

One former NOP runner told the doping investigators that Salazar has "a room in his basement" full of dietary supplements. The coach, the former runner said, has a collection of amino acid supplements, testosterone boosters and weight-loss medications -- pills and powders that he distributes generously to his athletes.

Salazar says that his intention is to prevent his athletes from taking dietary supplements that might be contaminated with banned substances. He claims to have had the supplements tested and then stored them at his home "for safe-keeping."

Each time athletes undergo a drug test, they must fill out a "Declaration of Use" form (DOU), where they list all substances they have taken in the previous seven days. The DOU forms from several Oregon runners are consistent with reports regarding the contents of Salazar's basement storage room.

According to the forms, Galen Rupp takes calcium tablets, iron tablets, zinc pills and vitamin C, D and E supplements along with the asthma medication Advair. He also takes Combivent, a medicine that expands the airways, and Cytomel, which helps to reduce weight. When contacted, Rupp said that he takes the drugs for medical conditions he suffers from, namely asthma and an underactive thyroid.

His teammate Shannon Rowbury, who came in fourth in the 1,500 meters in Rio, listed 35 tablets, sprays and powders in her May 23, 2016, DOU. The menu includes the allergy medication Montelukast along with a magnesium spray, dairy supplements, a glucose drink, pain medication and sleeping pills. In Oregon, Rowbury said in response to a request for comment, there is lots of pollen from flowers and grasses, which is why she takes the allergy medication. She insists that she didn't take any banned substance.

The substances and medications listed on her DOU are generally allowed. But the amount of substances regularly consumed by the Oregon runners bears witness to the philosophy adhered to at NOP.

An 'Obsession' with Testosterone Levels

Coach Salazar has an "obsession with the testosterone levels … of his athletes," the USADA report states, adding that he was conducting risky experiments to increase the production of hormones in his athletes -- by using vitamin D, for example. The recommended daily dose for adults is 600 IE. IE stands for international unit. The USADA report states that the pills Salazar gave to his runners contained 50,000 IE. He encouraged the athletes to take them several times each week.

When Salazar is asked by the media about his recipe for success, he says that he relies on sports medicine like no other. What he doesn't discuss is that he often goes right to the limit of what is permitted, and is perhaps even prepared to cross it.

In January 2011, Salazar came across a report by a British researcher about a new nutritional supplement called Nutramet, which contains L-carnitine, an amino acid compound involved in the production of energy in muscle cells. Researchers claim that L-carnitine can provide endurance athletes with an additional boost for the final stretch. The paragraph in question suggested a performance boost of up to 11 percent.

Salazar was extremely excited.

The coach got in touch with the manufacturer and succeeded in convincing the company that his runners should be the first to get access to the new substance, even before it became available on the market.

A short time later, Salazar wrote an email to his athletes at the Oregon Project. "Hi Everyone," he wrote. "I'm bringing a box of the new sports drink we got from the UK to Nike tomorrow. I've got enough for six months for each of you ...… you need to start now."

Salazar learned from the manufacturer that L-carnitine needs to be taken for up to four months before it has an effect. But that was too long for the coach, so he discussed the issue with Dr. Jeffrey Brown, a team doctor from Houston. Salazar came up with an idea: Why not give the runners L-carnitine by intravenous infusion?

The doctor had reservations.

"The pancreatic insulin secretory response can be impaired," Brown wrote to Salazar. But "we have nothing to lose," the coach answered. Some of the athletes also didn't like the idea of infusions. "Between this drink and the L-carnitine drink (infusions)," Salazar then responded, "I believe you… can each get about a 2-3-minute advantage."

The mail was sent and the concerns were shoved aside.

Salazar decided that an assistant coach should get the first infusion as a test run. The results were to Salazar's liking. On Dec. 1, 2011, he wrote an email to Lance Armstrong, who at the time was trying to become a triathlete and was training with NOP. "Lance, call me ASAP. We have tested it and it is amazing." He also copied several Nike executives in the message, including Tom Clark, the company's CEO at the time.

'Guinea Pigs'

According to the USADA report, at least five runners with the Nike Oregon Project received L-carnitine infusions, among them Rapp. The report states that the athletes had been used as "guinea pigs."

Salazar denies the accusation. "I do not 'carry out experiments' on my athletes," he says. He claims to have personally contacted USADA in advance to make sure "that everything fully complied" with World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) rules.

WADA has jurisdiction over which substances and methods are banned for endurance athletes. Although L-carnitine is not on the list of banned substances, infusions of more than 50 milliliters are generally prohibited.

During its research into the matter, USADA found that a pharmacy located near Houston had produced the infusion bags for the runners. The investigators are in possession of a form from the pharmacy dated Jan. 4, 2012, noting that four 100-mililiter bags were being prepared. The next day, Rupp received an infusion from his doctor.

The investigators wrote that it appeared to be "highly likely" that Rupp received "an L-carnitine infusion from Dr. Brown in excess of 50 ml." If that happened, then both would have been in violation "of the applicable anti-doping rules." The consequence for Rupp would be a suspension.

The runner claims that he adhered to WADA rules when taking the infusions. Brown also rejected the allegation through his attorney, saying he "did not infuse athletes with 'almost certainly' more than 50 ml of L-carnitine solution." He accuses DER SPIEGEL of having fallen for "fake news."

It's astonishing how much material investigators have collected about the Nike Oregon Project and how detailed their knowledge is of the runners' performance optimization efforts. Their report also alleges that Salazar has sworn by thyroid hormones for years. His substances of choice are called Levoxyl, Thyroxin and Cytomel. Brown is alleged to have prescribed the medications to the athletes even though they didn't suffer from thyroid problems.

Salazar's Throttle

The substances became a "kind of throttle" for Salazar. He used it to "try to rev up the runners, to help them recover from a hard workout or prepare for an important competition." Salazar also denies this claim. The only priority for those suffering from a thyroid condition is getting them back to normal. "There is no such thing as making them better than normal or enhanced."

Salazar, it appears, is coach, doctor and pharmacist all in one. He also apparently decides when athletes are to take their preparations and what dose they should get. In a Dec. 20, 2011, email to Rupp, he wrote: "Take a full extra Levoxyl tonight and start on Cytomel right away. P.S. I've got Cytomel. If you don't have it, call me and I'll drive it over."

The substance isn't on the anti-doping list. But Perikles Simon, a professor of sports medicine at the University of Mainz and respected doping expert, thinks that's a mistake. "Thyroid hormones increase metabolism and they do not belong in competitive sports," he says.

SPIEGEL presented Salazar's emails to the professor for comment. "This trainer is acting as an alchemist, a drug procurer and hormone adulterer to these athletes," he says. "He should be banned immediately; there is no reason for delay."

The issue is more complicated for USADA. The anti-doping investigators have a powerful adversary in their efforts to prosecute the athletes: Nike, the world's biggest sporting apparel company, with annual turnover of 29 billion euros.

The Oregon Project is no normal sport sponsorship for Nike. The idea of building a team of elite runners comes from Phil Knight himself, the man who founded the company in 1964. Knight, 79, is no longer CEO, but he still determines who has the say in the company. Knight was a talented middle-distance runner in college. He and Salazar became buddies and when the coach needs something for his runners, it's Knight's number that he dials.

Nike has more than tripled its turnover in the last 15 years, which is also a function of the world-famous athletes it sponsors, such as Michael Jordan, Roger Federer and Ronaldo. Knight's goal is that of producing a runner who will be just as idolized as those sports icons. He wants to create a 21st century marathon legend.

He sees the NOP as a way of taking the brand back to its roots. Would Knight, one of the richest people in the world, let bothersome doping investigations get in the way of achieving that goal?

Stonewalling

Documents indicate that the company has made things as difficult as possible for the investigators. In June 2015, USADA agents asked Salazar to turn over all notes, documents and emails that contain the words "testosterone," "Testoboost" or "Testo." But Salazar refused. His lawyer told USADA that his client's emails were on the Nike server and belonged to the company. Sorry, but nothing could be done.

In response, the investigators turned to the company, resulting in a dispute between USADA lawyers and those at Nike. The company told the investigators that it wasn't opposed to cooperating, but they wanted to sign a "confidentiality agreement" with USADA.

Negotiations were difficult and went on for weeks -- and on Jan. 21, 2016, USADA lawyer William Bock had had enough, venting in an email to a Nike representative: "If accepted, your amendments would give to Nike: 1) Unilateral control over USADA's use of documents already in USADA's possession. (…) 2) The ability to prevent USADA from using documents in a hearing. (…) and 3) The potential capacity to interfere with, delay or impede USADA's investigation in a myriad of ways."

Apparently the company wasn't just eager to hinder the doping investigation into its stable of elite runners, Nike was also seeking to assert control over the proceedings. USADA investigator Bock said that Nike was making "unreasonable demands." With the stars advertising for Nike shoes, he added, the company was making huge amounts of money but was not prepared to support clean sports.

'Conclusory and Skimpy'

Nike rejects the imputation, with a spokesman writing in an email the company "has not tried to obstruct" the investigation and that it "does not tolerate the use of performance-enhancing drugs." Nike, the spokesman said, sent "thousands of pages of documents" to USADA. Which is true. But internal USADA emails reveal that investigators found the documents to be "conclusory and skimpy."

In the end, the only means available to USADA is to conduct routine doping tests on the Oregon runners as often as possible. During the past season, Rupp had to undergo testing 14 times and Centrowitz 17 times. Both submitted samples that arose suspicion in the doping investigators.

On Jan. 14, 2016, USADA's science director, Matthew Fedoruk, received an email from his test results division. In it, a USADA employee noted of a test on Rupp that "T/E is elevated compared to athlete's previous pattern in samples." A strong imbalance between testosterone and epitestosterone is considered an indicator of possible doping. Fedoruk ordered further tests, but the outcome of those tests is not known. Rupp claims he has never taken testosterone.

A few weeks before the Olympic Games in Rio, USADA employees emailed back and forth about a sample provided by Centrowitz. At issue was his hemoglobin value and reticulocyte count. In a June 15, 2016 email, a USADA scientist wrote that the sample exhibited a "suspicious profile." The investigators agreed to test Centrowitz again "in the next week or two." The emails do not provide any indication of whether that happened.

Two months later, Centrowitz would go on to win a gold medal at the Rio Olympics. In the 1,500-meter final he was so dominant that he led the pack from the beginning to the end. Centrowitz claims he was never contacted by USADA with any queries about the doping tests and that he "is dedicated to a clean sport."

An On-Going Investigation

USADA versus Nike -- the world's toughest anti-doping investigators against a multinational corporation -- the ultimate outcome of this duel remains unclear. When contacted, officials at USADA said they had no comment on the Nike Oregon Project at this time. A spokesman said the investigations are continuing.

The USADA report is labeled as an "interim report," and the investigators would not comment on whether a final report will be produced. But there's no lack of unanswered questions.

For example, it has long been known that Salazar often carries AndroGel with him, a gel-based testosterone that athletes apply to their skin. The coach claims to suffer from hypogonadism, a testicular condition. He says it is a consequence of his tough training as a marathon runner and that he now relies on the medication.

But the list of substances on the anti-doping list also applies to coaches unless, according to WADA rules, the coach has a "valid justification" for taking them. Salazar submitted several letters written by his doctors in early 2016 to support his story, but investigators are suspicious. They believe there's another version of events.

Former athletes who worked with Salazar claim he has a "frequent practice" of giving Rupp a massage shortly before important competitions. The other runners had always wondered about the treatment because Nike hired professional masseurs to perform massages on its athletes. But Salazar always insisted on personally massaging Rupp himself.

The coach and his runner deny the use of the testosterone gel. "The Oregon Project will never permit doping," Salazar says. And with that, the matter is closed for him. "Hopefully now that I have answered your questions and debunked these false allegations against me and my athletes you will focus on the many wonderful accomplishments my athletes have achieved through their hard work, dedication and talent."

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