Sonia O’Sullivan: Salazar story casts a shadow over events in Doha

Outstanding Hassan, like Farah, is a product of the coach’s Nike Oregon Project

Netherlands’ 10,000m champion Sifan Hassan  crosses the finish line ahead of USA’s Nikki Hiltz  and Uganda’s Winnie Nanyondo in the Women’s 1500m heats  at the  World Championships in  Doha. Photograph: Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty

Netherlands’ 10,000m champion Sifan Hassan crosses the finish line ahead of USA’s Nikki Hiltz and Uganda’s Winnie Nanyondo in the Women’s 1500m heats at the World Championships in Doha. Photograph: Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty

 

Staging any major sporting event in a place like Doha was always going to raise some questions.

Far from an ideal location, obviously, and yet for all the negatives being thrown around – not least the extreme heat the marathon runners and race walkers have been forced to endure – the World Athletics Championships have still attracted a high level of curiosity.

The stadium air conditioning is something we’ve never seen before, and appears to have created near-perfect running conditions down on the track. Most athletes are using the indoor arena to warm-up, so the only blast of heat they get is on the walk to the stadium after the call-room. That does open up fresh possibilities for the future of the sport.

The other thing that has stood out most is the preparation the athletes have put in. There is no way to succeed in any sport without meticulous focus and preparation, and athletics continues to become a lot more professional, and this is seen in the results on the track and in the field.

Still it seems there is always some hesitation to accept and believe some of the near unbelievable results, but a lot has changed over the years; tracks and shoes on the technical side, and also training methods. You just hope that the drug testing procedures are also keeping up with the athletes and some of the more outstanding performances.

The women’s 10,000 metres is one event that is fast evolving. It used to be a easy run around and then a sprint finish, only now it’s become an intense race over 25 laps, typically with very little time to relax once the runners settle in after the first few laps.

Sifan Hassan, representing the Netherlands, is so far the standout athlete who is most likely to add to her 10,000m success by winning 1,500m later in the week.

Hassan has always been an outstanding athlete from when she first started representing Netherlands, as a junior athlete, winning European cross country and indoor track titles. She then moved her training base in late 2016 to join the Nike Oregon Project and almost immediately has shown a meteoric rise in the consistency and speed of her races.

It’s a near replica of the improvements and dominance shown by Britain’s Mo Farah when he joined the Nike Oregon Project, and immediately went from a good athlete to an unbeatable athlete.

Already setting a world mile record this year, Hassan has a range of ability across distances from 800m (1:56.81) up to the half marathon (65:15); she could also compete at 5,000m at this World Championships but has chosen the 1500m as her second event.

A shadow

As great as the results and the races have been so far, there is still something missing in the way these results are accepted. They don’t all appear to be celebrated as they should as if there is some shadow, an unknown factor that causes people to question how an athlete can be so good, so fearless.

In the 10,000m, Hassan ran her final mile in 4:19, her final 1500m in 3:59, and for many people it seems almost incomprehensible to be able to do that, with 21 laps of fast running already in the legs. Hassan was pushed by Ethiopian athlete Letesenbet Gidey, just 21 years old, already twice a World Junior Cross Country champion.

Against that backdrop came the announcement on Tuesday that Alberto Salazar, founder and head coach at the Nike Oregon Project, was handed a four-year ban by the US Anti-doping Agency. The timing did seem a little strange, especially given no athletes have been found to test positive, unless it is to draw immediate attention and more specific details will be released at a later time.

No athletes have been implicated in this ban, but it certainly casts a shadow over the athletes that have been coached in the past including Farah and those that are currently coached by Salazar or even just part of the Nike Oregon Project.

I know if I was an athlete competing now, you would have to wonder what it is that makes athletes improve so much when they join this group. For now, Salazar is banned from attending the rest of the World Championships, while Hassan is still free to compete in the 1500m.

Even though some athletes are in the Nike Oregon Project are in a group coached by Pete Julian, you wonder what influence Salazar has on this group, if any. It’s as if people have been waiting for this news and many athletes will now be viewed in a less positive light because they share the same track and training venues and support systems.

As much as there is despair that athletes and coaches continue to flaunt the the rules, it’s always positive for the sport when something that has been under investigation for four years is finally uncovered and exposed.

This is also one area where professionalism in sport goes beyond simple preparation and training at a high level; it is going as close to the line as possible without crossing but testing the boundaries. Often it’s not straight up doping but the recovery methods used to allow adequate recovery and more frequent high intensity training sessions without breaking down.

Extra edge

Athletes are always looking for an extra edge, to get the best from themselves but at what cost we may be about to find out more as there is no doubt Nike Oregon Project athletes will now feel the pressure to provide answers in the absence of Salazar.

Even though I felt a sense of unease about these World Championships from the start I’m still enjoying the quality races each night. Then just as you start to think that maybe all is well, maybe just the shoes and the tracks and the more professional approach to training and preparation is delivering even greater results than ever, along comes the Salazar story to offer a reminder that maybe it’s not.

Still to me the most pertinent question of all is why did the newly elected IAAF president Seb Coe and his council not withdraw from Qatar? Especially when it was obvious it was not chosen for the right reasons, not for the benefit of the athletes or the sport, but just to boost the bank balance of the IAAF. It was certainly not for the credibility of the sport.

Now more than ever athletics needs to restore some integrity and credibility, and staging these championships in Doha certainly has not helped. Even still, just when it seems maybe things are not as bad as they were, we are reminded yet again that all is not as it seems on the surface. Can that question ever be removed?

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