Joanne O’Riordan: Pity the trail of victims left by Salazar’s dubious methods

Documentary’s theme of a ‘misunderstood genius’ seems dangerously wide of the mark

 Alberto Salazar: Nike’s Big Bet’s homage to Alberto Salazar pushed the  idea that would probably make Lance Armstrong laugh. Maybe Salazar was this misunderstood genius who just pushed to the limits without stepping over the line.   Photograph: Andy Lyons/Getty

Alberto Salazar: Nike’s Big Bet’s homage to Alberto Salazar pushed the idea that would probably make Lance Armstrong laugh. Maybe Salazar was this misunderstood genius who just pushed to the limits without stepping over the line. Photograph: Andy Lyons/Getty

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You may have heard recently that another documentary surrounding another Usada victim was about to be the next big thing.

Nike’s Big Bet: Alberto Salazar and The Fine Line Of Sport aired on Sky over the weekend, following ESPN’s 30 for 30 Lance on Lance Armstrong.

Both documentaries aimed to uncover “the truth” and tried to unpick stories that are so legally entangled that any lawyer would probably tell you to steer clear. But investigative journalists and documentary makers are different. They like to gnaw on the bone until their teeth erode.

Here’s the thing about Nike’s Big Bet: it missed the mark, big time. While ESPN’s 30 for 30 on Lance exposed what we all were thinking – he’s an egotistical man who needs a reputation fix while those who enabled him perish – Nike’s Big Bet’s homage to Alberto Salazar pushed out an idea that would probably make Lance laugh. Maybe Salazar was this misunderstood genius who just pushed to the limits without stepping over the line.

Sure, Usada needed a big hit after whispers about testosterone gel, L-carnitine shots, thyroid tablets, and the fact Fancy Bear, an online leak in 2016 that saw plenty of eyebrows raised. Usada needed a scalp. They needed to prove they were ahead of the game.

So, in 2019, at a World Athletics Championship smeared with sportswashing in Doha, Salazar got taken away in metaphorical cuffs and had a four-year ban imposed on him. The ban was for using a Wada prohibited method, tampering with doping control methods and trafficking testosterone through a prohibited testing programme. Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project, along with their athletes, maintain their innocence.

So, a documentary that wanted to expose the truth actually supports Salazar and paints him as the victim while victim-blaming the whistle-blowers who endured physical, mental and emotional abuse.

In one scene, Malcolm Gladwell dismisses Mary Cain’s story and says the parents were wrong. For context, Cain was an upcoming phenom who was winning races and smashing records against people twice her age as a teen. Then, she moved to the Nike Oregon Project and disappeared.

That is, until a New York Times video series that highlighted Cain was cutting herself while under Salazar, who brushed it under the carpet.

Salazar and his all-male coaching staff berated Mary, a teenager at that stage, for being overweight and put her under immense pressure to lose weight.

Cain left the Oregon Project in 2015, suffering five stress fractures and three years of amenorrhea, a loss of regular periods, or absence of periods entirely.

Kara Goucher, another whistleblower and former Oregon Project marathon runner, also came out and said she was taking a hard-form tablet disguised as Vitamin B but which was actually thyroid medication to help lose weight.

Manipulate bodies

As someone who is not in the running world, I understand that pontificating about these strategies seem a bit preachy.

I’m sure Salazar isn’t the only coach in the history of track and field to preach about weight, but, with Nike and Salazar’s win-at-all-costs model being hailed and celebrated, part of me feels uncomfortable about a project designed to manipulate bodies, disguise unprescribed medication and push the boundaries to a dangerous level.

I know athletes want to win, and many of them would love their careers to be successful. The cost of losing or coming second could be hundreds of thousands of euros, given how many athletes cash in on other businesses from their own athletic success, like events, sponsorship, public speaking and everything in between.

While the documentary asked the question was it too far, it did so in a way that made you think, well, maybe Salazar wanted the best for their athletes. Perhaps it wasn’t all bad. I’m sure, like everything, some people thrived, while others barely survived. But weight loss, amenorrhea and disguising drugs as other drugs isn’t something to be celebrated when you win gold.

It was deemed hard as nails and funny to continue playing on with a head injury until recently. Based on research and anecdotally, we have heard that’s not the best idea, to say the least.

So, while this documentary looked to celebrate or force you to make your mind up about Salazar, it made for uncomfortable viewing, seeing how many people were duped and blindsided by the workload they had to put in to be the best.

While we won’t know the impact of Salazar’s methods until years down the line, it is incredibly dangerous to have a so-called “mad genius” set a standard for how athletes need to train, eat, ingest and behave.

Setting this precedent is incredibly dangerous. Some make it out unscathed, but there will be plenty other Mary Cains and Kara Bouchers.

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