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A Cast of All Men Contemplate if Alberto Salazar is a Victim or a Villain in a New Documentary. Surprise! They Get it Wrong

Lacking a diversity of perspectives, “Nike’s Big Bet” misses the mark on athlete abuse.

Alberto Salazar is currently serving a four-year doping violations ban and an additional temporary coaching suspension from the United States Center for SafeSport, but a new documentary called “Nike’s Big Bet” questions if he’s really done anything wrong. Then asks about a dozen men to answer.

Salazar, 62, was the head coach of the now-defunct Nike Oregon Project, guiding the careers of some of the world’s most decorated distance runners, including Galen Rupp, 2012 silver medalist in the 10,000 meters and marathon bronze medalist at the Rio Games; Sifan Hassan, who won double world titles in the 10,000 meters and 1500 meters at the 2019 world championships; and Mo Farah, quadruple Olympic gold medalist in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

The film was released in Canada on Thursday, with plans to distribute it more widely soon. It focuses on Salazar’s three violations of anti-doping rules, which resulted in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s ban beginning in 2019, though none of his former athletes have ever tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. With the backing of Nike, Salazar has appealed the suspension, but no decision in the case has been announced yet.

The film sets the stage with the origin story of Nike and the win-at-all-cost corporate culture developed in those early days. Salazar was a natural fit, winning the New York City Marathon three times in the early 1980s, as well as the “Duel in the Sun” at the Boston Marathon. It depicts Salazar’s habit as an athlete to push well past perceived limitations, even famously receiving last rites after collapsing at the 1978 Falmouth Road Race finish line.

In 2001, Nike gave Salazar free rein and nearly unlimited resources to train talented athletes at the Oregon Project to better compete on the world stage. And just as he did in his own running career, he pushed the boundaries of rules and ethics, which ultimately resulted in the USADA investigation, triggered by former members of the team, including world championships silver medalist Kara Goucher (making a brief appearance in the movie) and assistant coach Steve Magness, who blew the whistle on prescription drug use with the intention of enhancing performance and testosterone cream experiments Salazar conducted on his two sons.

The documentary doesn’t offer new information or bring to light any additional evidence of wrongdoing, but it instead asks journalists and writers to opine on whether Salazar has actually broken any rules or merely stretched them. The cast of commentators includes Amby Burfoot, Malcolm Gladwell, Ken Goe, Jonathan Gault, Weldon Johnson, Chris Chavez, Timothy Hutchings, Alex Hutchinson and more—most of whom are informed experts, but as a group of all men, lack a diversity of perspectives, which leads the film astray.

When the subject of athlete abuse involving allegations by multiple female Oregon Project members is broached, Gladwell, Goe, and Michael Joyner, a physiologist and anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic who studies human performance, fumble and go so far as to victim-blame, ignoring the fact that the U.S. Center for SafeSport has also temporarily banned Salazar from coaching while it investigates the charges, including those of Mary Cain, a then-teen phenom who joined the Oregon Project straight out of high school.

Related: What is SafeSport and Why Did it Suspend Alberto Salazar?

At age 17, Cain moved from her parents’ home in New York to Portland, Oregon, as a national high school record holder—the youngest to ever represent the U.S. in a world-championship. But after she arrived in 2013, the pressure that Salazar and his all-male Oregon Project staff put on her to lose weight in order to perform better eventually led Cain to suicidal thoughts and self harm, which she said Salazar brushed off. He weighed Cain and berated her for arbitrary numbers on the scale, in front of other athletes and coaches following poor performances.

In the film, Gladwell, in particular, shows no empathy for Cain’s struggles nor does he acknowledge the mental health crisis she endured. Instead he questions why Cain’s parents sent her to the Oregon Project in the first place, saying “it’s not like he’s hiding how crazy he is—it is totally on the surface,” as if that excuses Salazar’s behavior as the authority figure in the development of a young female athlete.

“I remember when she signed with Salazar and my first thought was, ‘She’s not a Salazar athlete,’” Gladwell says. “She’s got too much spark and independence. You don’t go to Alberto Salazar if you’re looking to enjoy yourself, right? It’s just a bad match.”

At the time, Cain was a once-in-a-generation athletic talent looking for a company to support her dreams and provide all the resources she needed to develop her potential. Nike and Salazar, the most powerful entities in the sport, offered all of that—and no reason to believe that she was entering an abusive, unhealthy environment that would lead her to isolation and severe depression. She didn’t move across the country looking for a good time, she moved across the country to become the best runner she could be.

 

Ultimately Cain left the Oregon Project in 2015, suffering five stress fractures and three years of amenorrhea. After she came forward with her story in a New York Times documentary, other Oregon teammates corroborated it and shared similar experiences, including Amy Begley, who was dismissed from the group after placing sixth at the 2011 world championships 10,000 meters. Despite scan results proving her percentages of lean muscle and body fat were at healthy and fit levels, “[Salazar] said he didn’t care what the science said; ‘I know what I see and you have the biggest butt on the starting line,’” Begley told Women’s Running in 2019.

Goe points out that body weight matters in elite running and that “with women athletes, you gotta be very careful how you address that.” Joyner says, “You want to make sure that Alberto Salazar isn’t paying for the sins of an entire culture…he was certainly not alone. He was the highest profile person, had been outspoken, had a history and so forth. And the bigger they come, the harder they fall.”

But Cain’s experience can’t be boiled down to Salazar’s obsession with weight. This analysis is dangerous and giving it a platform without necessary context ignores a whole host of reasons why Salazar is no longer allowed to coach. The documentary fails to mention the investigation by the U.S. Center for SafeSport at all.

Salazar abused his power, he manipulated his athletes, he fostered a toxic culture where, despite having all the Nike money and resources at his disposal, he chose to ignore real science-backed training strategies along with proper, credentialed mental health support. Instead he resorted to threatening athletes’ livelihoods if they didn’t hit certain numbers on the scale, which were never based on anything but his perception of the size of their body parts. He gave them unprescribed thyroid medications to expedite weight loss.

The film ignores the broader conversation about how athletes suffer when a coach relies on antiquated philosophies that neglect nutrition and fueling science and individual physical development. It condones Salazar’s and Nike’s win-at-all-costs philosophy, dismissing the long-term physical and psychological damage it has inflicted upon dozens of athletes whose careers could have flourished under healthier circumstances.

In many ways this documentary is merely a reflection of the downfall of the Nike Oregon Project itself, relying on men to talk about women’s experiences. And until the movie-makers and book writers and pontificators pass their microphones to women to tell their own stories—and actually listen to them—we will never learn the lessons that the failed Nike Oregon Project imparted.

Does Salazar deserve to be banned from coaching? Did he really break the rules or just push the ethical boundaries of elite sport? Until the court makes that determination in the appeal, and after watching “Nike’s Big Bet,” one thing is clear: It really depends on who you ask.

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