The world's most famous running coach pushed the limits with his training — I wanted to find out if he cheated
Alberto Salazar was backed by Nike and produced dozens of champions. Banned for doping in 2019, was he guilty?
NOTE: On September 16, 2021, it was announced that Alberto Salazar's 4-year ban was upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
In the late 1980s and early '90s, I was a national-level track and field athlete. Today, I make documentary films and TV.
Watching decathlete Damian Warner and sprinter Andre De Grasse win Olympic gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics gave me goosebumps. But after years of competing, I am hyper-aware that, at the top level of running, the difference between winning and losing often comes down to centimeters or hundredths of a second. And those hundredths of a second matter — the difference between a gold medal and missing the podium is miniscule.
Just think of the missed marketing, commercial and financial opportunities, plus the national pride, if DeGrasse or Warner had finished in dreaded fourth place.
The fine lines of elite sport
The fine line between greatness and the "also-ran" — runners who didn't make the podium — is something that has fascinated me for years.
It's why I set out to make Nike's Big Bet: Alberto Salazar and the Fine Line of Sport, a documentary from The Passionate Eye. There's an emphasis on this idea in the title of the film, because it's that razor-thin line between glory and disappointment that makes sports so compelling.
After the news broke in 2019 that Salazar — arguably the greatest track and field coach in the world — had received a four-year suspension from coaching from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), I knew I had a fantastic story to follow for one reason: because the evidence of his guilt seemed far from certain.
How could the biggest coach in the world be accused of cheating when none of his athletes had ever tested positive, despite countless tests? That is the bizarre question I wanted to answer in the film.
While many in the sporting world have since branded Salazar as a doper, others see him as a triumphant sports hero who cunningly took the art of coaching to "mad-scientist" extremes. His renowned training program for elite track athletes, the Nike-sponsored Oregon Project, produced Olympic medals and national champions at an incredible rate. Salazar's results had international running stars knocking at his door.
What made his training that much more effective than his peers? And what was it about his methods that broke the rules?
Salazar was known for pushing boundaries
While some believe that Salazar's success came from attracting genetically talented athletes to his program, I have tried to explore how the combination of funding from the world's biggest sports brand; intense (and often bizarre) training methods; and Salazar's win-at-all-costs attitude and obsession with improvement led to glory for his athletes.
I also explored Salazar's experimentation with injections of the amino acid derivative L-carnitine (a permitted supplement in certain amounts) and testosterone cream (used on his sons to witness the results), and sought out runners' and experts' thoughts on the boundary-pushing practices. Both were considered as part of the USADA's investigation, which resulted in sanctions for "orchestrating and facilitating prohibited doping conduct" (though, again, none of his athletes were accused of doping).
While it's clear that Salazar's unorthodox methods produced champions, some of his former athletes have blown the whistle on his approach. The film documents the allegations of Mary Cain, who joined the Nike Oregon Project in 2013 as a world junior record holder and future star of the sport. In 2019, she spoke out about emotional and physical abuse while training under Salazar.
In July 2021, he received a lifetime ban from the U.S. Center for SafeSport after additional runners reported emotional and sexual abuse. SafeSport notes that it does not reveal the details of its investigations, and it is not clear if Salazar has appealed the ruling.
What will Salazar's legacy be?
I want to let the audience decide which side they fall on when it comes to many of Salazar's extreme training methods. Was it cheating to employ amino-acid injections, cryo-saunas, anti-gravity treadmills and altitude houses, or was it fair game? Was his obsession with athletes dropping body weight genius or dangerous?
What is clear is that Alberto Salazar has, with Nike's help, transcended and polarized the international realm of track and field. He revolutionized elite running — for better or worse.
As to his guilt or innocence regarding the doping charges, the Court of Arbitration for Sport will decide that, following Salazar's appeal of the USADA suspension, but this film lays out what is at stake.
I applaud the human excellence that elite athletes strive for through their work, sacrifices and determination. I hope this film makes audiences think more about what makes a champion.
We love to glorify our medallists and cheer when records are broken. But can we ever become comfortable with the extreme methods that many coaches and athletes use to get there?
Watch Nike's Big Bet: Alberto Salazar and the Fine Line of Sport on The Passionate Eye.
By Paul Kemp, director of Nike's Big Bet