The distance running world was shaken a few months ago by top-level Kenyan and Russian doping convictions, but, you know, that was somewhere else. It was over there, not here in the US of A. Until yesterday, ironically, National Running Day. Two Molotov cocktails—an article on ProPublica by David Epstein and an hour-long BBC program by Mark Daly called Catch Me If You Can—brought the focus of illegal drug use directly onto America’s most successful coach, Alberto Salazar, and his star protege Galen Rupp. In these two collaboratively investigated stories, former athletes, a coach and others who worked with Salazar and his group, the Nike Oregon Project, say Salazar instructed athletes to use testosterone and prescription asthma and thyroid medications for performance enhancement.
None of Salazar’s athletes have tested positive for illegal substances, including Rupp, the most frequently tested athlete in the country, and that’s what really galvanized Epstein and Daly, who have been working on this story for several years. Epstein was a key player in exposing Lance Armstrong (who also never failed a drug test); Daly went a step further and showed how very flawed drug testing is with a bit of self-experimentation. Under a drug expert’s guidance, he juiced himself with EPO, increased his oxygen-carrying ability by 7%, and still passed all of WADA’s tests with flying colors.
Probably the most damning evidence in this investigation is a photo former assistant Nike Oregon Project coach Steve Magness took of blood work done over time on athletes in the group. Galen Rupp’s chart is notated by Nike physician Dr. Loren Myhre, who passed away in 2012, and indicates that in 2002, Rupp was on prednisone and testosterone. He was 16 years old at the time.
Prednisone is often used to treat asthma, which Rupp claims to have suffered from since childhood. It’s banned during competition because it can increase oxygen consumption, but athletes who need it can get a therapeutic use exemption, or TUE, from a doctor. Of course, that’s a loophole athletes and coaches can take advantage of, legally, by finding a doctor who will diagnose asthma. According to Epstein’s report, Myhre was just one of a team of doctors, including an endocrinologist, employed by Nike.
Ross Tucker, physiologist behind the Science of Sport, pointed out another prednisone loophole:
The glucocorticoids are not listed as “Prohibited at all times” (see screen grabs from the WADA prohibited list below - the list of prohibited at all times list is on the left, and in-competition is on the right), which means out-of-competition, you don’t even need a TUE, there’s no restriction.
In other words, athletes can use corticosteroids, with all their benefits, until about a week before competition, and they wouldn’t even need a TUE for it.
I’d never made the conscious link until this discussion, but it’s really bizarre that the restriction (via TUE) of these substances only applies to competition, and not training. Better recovery, harder training, greater benefit, and race clean.
Testosterone as a supplement, though, is always a no-go (sprinter Justin Gatlin served a four-year ban after testing positive for excess testosterone). In Daly’s investigation, a World Anti-Doping Agency official said that it would be extremely rare for a TUE to be granted for testosterone, and that someone who was truly that low on the hormone should probably be resting rather than competing at a top level. Salazar countered that the testosterone mentioned on Rupp’s blood chart came from the legal supplement Testoboost.
Galen Rupp, 2014. Photo via Getty
Magness also told ProPublica Salazar used his son, and Nike employee, Alex, as a guinea pig to find the point at which testosterone would show up on tests.
“Mike,” a former runner with the Oregon Project who spoke to both Epstein and Daly, was counseled by Dr. Myhre to get some testosterone and thyroid medication for his fatigue. According to ProPublica:
The runner says he then questioned whether it was cheating, to which he says Myhre told him, “Well no, I mean Alberto does it.”
The runner asked whether taking testosterone would cause a positive test, and recalls Myhre said: “No. No. No. We’ll get you into the normal range.”
The other testosterone story comes from massage therapist John Stiner, who worked with NOP in 2008 at their high altitude training center in Utah. Salazar asked Stiner to mail him a tube of Androgel, a testosterone cream, they’d left in their condo, adding that he’d used it personally for his heart. Suspicious, Stiner asked doctors about the lotion, and they replied testosterone would be contra-indicated for someone who’d suffered a heart attack, as Salazar had the previous year.
Two-time Olympian Kara Goucher and husband, Adam Goucher, both former NOP athletes, are certainly high-profile names to speak out. Kara gave an emotional account of Salazar urging her to take additional thyroid medication (beyond what she was already prescribed) for which she had no prescription to help her lose weight after the birth of her son. Because thyroid meds like the Cytomel Salazar urged Goucher to take, are not (yet) illegal and may help athletes lose weight and feel more energetic, they are, according to Epstein, “rampantly prescribed among world-ranking endurance runners.”
Goucher’s story certainly shows Salazar to be unethical, but doesn’t describe violation. The gray area around thyroid hormones and prednisone is inhabited, uneasily, by plenty of athletes and coaches, partly because win-at-all-costs programs like Salazar’s have given it credence.
The testosterone allegations, on the other hand, are not just serious, but point to clear rules violations. Epstein and Daly readily admit they have no smoking gun, but this door-opening may embolden others to brave the wrath of the country’s most successful—and powerful—coach.
photo credit: Getty Images