Nike’s Big Bet: Alberto Salazar and the Fine Line of Sport

Did legendary coach and Nike spokesperson Alberto Salazar push the boundaries of elite track and field or was he abusive towards his athletes?

In 2019, legendary Nike-backed running coach Alberto Salazar received a four-year international doping ban from all coaching activities — even though none of his athletes had ever tested positive in a drug test.

The ban sent shockwaves through the track and field world.

Salazar was known (and praised) for his unconventional training methods, which produced dozens of winners at the Olympics and World Championships. Author and podcaster Malcolm Gladwell believes Salazar’s training methods were justified because they pushed the boundaries of what’s fair in sport.

Salazar had an “altitude house” built so his athletes could benefit from training at different elevations without travelling. He employed anti-gravity and underwater treadmills to reduce training stress. He went to incredible lengths to ship a cyro-sauna — essentially a liquid nitrogen bath — across the U.S. so an athlete could have a 10-minute treatment before a race. Salazar famously pushed his athletes to the extreme, like when he had champion Galen Rupp run intense workouts immediately after a record-breaking 2 mile track performance.

Watch below: Salazar’s unconventional training methods included fake altitude training, anti-gravity training and shipping cryo-saunas across the United States.

But others questioned his approach and attitude, with former proteges reporting that Salazar was abusive and manipulative as a coach.

Was Salazar’s win-at-all-costs attitude, which tested the margins of human limits, a good thing for the sport of track and field?

Nike’s Big Bet, a documentary from The Passionate Eye, explores how the sports apparel giant established the ground-breaking “Nike Oregon Project” in 2001 to train elite track and field runners. Salazar, a former marathon world record holder, oversaw the program and was given free reign to employ his unorthodox training tactics. Over the next 18 years, Nike Oregon Project runners dominated the sport.

In Nike’s Big Bet, Nike Oregon Project alumni, journalists, coaches and fans try to uncover the truth: is Salazar the greatest running coach in history? Or did he win by breaking the rules?