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A running scandal and the price of power at Nike

Distance runner Mary Cain has filed a $20 million lawsuit against her former coach, Alberto Salazar, and their employer, Nike. (Charlie Neibergall, File/AP Photo)
Distance runner Mary Cain has filed a $20 million lawsuit against her former coach, Alberto Salazar, and their employer, Nike. (Charlie Neibergall, File/AP Photo)

In the world of professional running, one company stands above all.

Nike attracted the world’s best.

Alberto Salazar was a Nike-funded coach for almost 20 years. That ended in scandal.

“As soon as Nike knew that Alberto was under investigation, they put alligators in the moat and they pulled up the drawbridge,” author Matt Hart says, quoting U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart.

In a sport where a paycheck is never a sure thing – when a corporation pulls the plug, who wins, and who loses?

Today, On Point: A look at the cost of power at Nike. Is a reckoning for professional runners upon us?

Transcript: Former Oregon Project athlete Kara Goucher on the price of power at Nike

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: What does a win-at-all-costs attitude actually cost, especially when wielded by one of the most powerful athletics companies in the world?

KARA GOUCHER: My name is Kara Goucher. I’m a two time Olympian, I’m a wife and a mother. My son jokes that I have a million jobs, but I still run a lot. I promote running.

CHAKRABARTI: Goucher is a celebrated American long distance runner. A three time NCAA champion in cross-country and the 3,000 and 5,000 meters. A World Championship silver medalist and a top three finisher in the New York and Boston marathons. In American running, Goucher was among the elite. And the elite often run for one of the most influential athletics companies in the world. They run for Nike.

GOUCHER: I signed with Nike in 2001, and Nike invited me to come and visit their campus after the NCAA championships. And I was blown away. I mean, they wined and dined us and showed us all around. And it really felt like I would be crazy not to take this offer. It wasn’t a huge contract, but it was enough that I could focus on running full time. And yeah, it just seemed like this is what you dream about, being a Nike Athlete. I wore Nike’s my whole life. You know, I was like, This is the dream.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, in the early 2000s, Nike embarked on a new mission, the Nike Oregon Project. Nike Vice President Thomas Clark wanted to recapture the glory days of American long distance running back in the 1980s, when Americans frequently won the biggest races in the world. So the company brought on board one of the biggest names in running: superstar Alberto Salazar, who’d won three consecutive New York City marathons in the early 1980s. In 2004, Kara Goucher joined the team.

GOUCHER: We went out to visit the Oregon Project, and it was very similar to when I visited the Nike campus three years earlier. It just seemed like we were insane to not take this opportunity on. We really just said, if we don’t, if we pass this up, we’re crazy.

CHAKRABARTI: And for a while, the project yielded results.

GOUCHER: I would say it wasn’t until really after I won a medal at the World Championships in ’07 that it really started to shift. The culture of the team really started to shift. It really started to become all about results, and no longer about development. Really like you have to perform like put up or shut up, basically. And so the culture of the team really started to shift from what we had initially signed on to.

CHAKRABARTI: In 2009, Kara finished third in the Boston Marathon, a fantastic finish by most standards. But for Salazar and Nike, it wasn’t good enough.

GOUCHER: It’s the first time that I was like knowing that Nike was counting on me to win, and there were things in place for me when I won. And now all these people have worked so hard and I had let that down. Oh, I definitely felt the responsibility to the company. I mean, when I finished, I just was overcome with emotion because I knew how many people I had let down.

CHAKRABARTI: Salazar pushed them hard, and according to Goucher, in ways that were against the anti-doping rules that govern professional running. She says she saw teammates faking dehydration to get IVs at big competitions.

GOUCHER: My coach would joke about how to fake it to get these IVs. My coach asked me to take a prescription drug that I didn’t have a prescription for to help me shed weight faster after I had my son. And there was just things like that that I started to see that weren’t like I didn’t walk in, and my teammates were shooting themselves up with EPO. I didn’t see that, but I saw stuff that was absolutely against the rules. And it was being treated like it was no big deal.

CHAKRABARTI: Goucher left the Nike Oregon Project in 2011. She took an even bigger step right after that. She decided to come forward and meet with the head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

GOUCHER: Remember, we’re talking about Alberto Salazar, who is funded by the biggest brand in the world, and is backed by the biggest brand in the world. And so it’s not like I’m ratting out a teammate that makes 30,000 year. I’m like saying stuff that happened on the Nike campus that was paid for by Nike that Nike was aware of. So it just felt really scary to put myself in that position.

CHAKRABARTI: Goucher’s reports spurred an investigation into Alberto Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project. Soon, there were more allegations of sexual misconduct, physical and emotional abuse, those allegations made against Salazar. On October 1st, 2019, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency banned Salazar, and just over a week later, Nike shut down the Oregon Project. Salazar denies the charges and allegations against him. But this summer, the U.S. Center for Safe Sport banned Salazar for life. And a month later, in August of 2021, Nike renamed the Alberto Salazar building at its Beaverton, Oregon, headquarters.

CHAKRABARTI: But this story isn’t over yet. Just last week, a professional runner, Mary Cain, sued Salazar and Nike for $20 million, alleging he physically and emotionally abused her. Cain joined the team when she was just 16 years old. We reached out to Nike and requested a representative from the company to join us.

They declined, but they sent this statement:

“We don’t comment on ongoing litigation. Nike is committed to positively affecting the future of sport for women and girls, and we are doing more in this space than ever before.”

So how did alleged abuse inside one of the world’s top training teams, funded by one of the world’s biggest running companies, go on for so long? Click ‘Listen’ above to hear more about Nike’s running scandal.

Guests

Matt Hart, journalist and writer. Author of “Win At All Costs: Inside Nike Running and its Culture of Deception.” (@ByMattHart)

Lindsay Crouse, senior staff editor at the New York Times. (@lindsaycrouse)

Also Featured

Kara Goucher, Olympian and former Nike Oregon Project athlete. (@karagoucher)

Sally Bergesen, CEO and founder of Oiselle. (@oiselle_sally)

From The Reading List

New York Times: “I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike” — “Mary Cain’s male coaches were convinced she had to get ‘thinner, and thinner, and thinner.’ Then her body started breaking down.”

New York Times: “‘This Doesn’t Sound Legal’: Inside Nike’s Oregon Project” — “Dathan Ritzenhein, an Olympic distance runner for the United States, was starting to feel sick from his thyroid medication — a drug that was not medically necessary but one that his coach, a powerful and combative figure in the sport, had strongly recommended to improve his performance.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.