Fighting Infection (and Injection)

By Mario Fraioli

There are better things to talk about in running than the doping problems that infect the sport—and I’m going to try and bring you more of those stories here in the morning shakeout—but it’s a hard topic to avoid and shouldn’t be left completely unaddressed. That said, by now most of you reading this have seen the latest New York Times piece on Nike’s Oregon Project. If you haven’t, give it a looksie right here. “Is this legal?” three-time Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein asked his then-coach Alberto Salazar, according to a confidential U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report obtained by The Times. “This doesn’t sound legal.” Ritzenhein, whose contract with Nike recently expired, was referring to L-carnitine infusions, which appeared to enhance performance. L-carnitine is not a banned substance, but infusing it in extremely high doses of a short period of time is, which raised more than a few eyebrows amongst members of the group, including Steve Magness, who was Salazar’s assistant at the time and acted as a guinea pig for the infusion. This wasn’t the only questionable practice, as “prescription-dose vitamin D; calcitonin; ferrous sulfate; Advair; testosterone; and various thyroid medications” were amongst the other substances mentioned in the USADA report. Salazar, of course, continues to deny any wrongdoing, and even wrote an email to Ritzenhein stating that, “Everything is above board and cleared thru Usada. They know me very well because I always get an okay before doing anything!”

I had many thoughts while reading this piece, but I’ve been pretty hung up on these last couple of lines for two reasons: 1. If your athletes are questioning what you’re having them do is legal, and you need to go to USADA on a regular basis to clear “cutting edge” practices, you are, at minimum (and this is me giving you the extreme benefit of the doubt), knowingly pushing up against the line of what’s legal and/or ethical. 2. Building off that, in its report, USADA said, “Salazar’s statement about always getting clearance with Usada ‘before doing anything’ is both ironic and inaccurate.” I have a hard time giving Salazar the benefit of the doubt and believe that USADA has to have some evidence to back up its assessment of the accuracy of his aforementioned statements. I/we/the entire sport of athletics, can only hope that that evidence—and the full USADA report—sees the light of day. (Update: Ask and you shall receive.)

+ This old New Yorker piece from November 2010 about Salazar, Ritzenhein and running form popped into my mind as I was reading the aforementioned article. There are a number of anecdotes in the New Yorker story that are worth revisiting and looking at through a different lens, such as this one: “Salazar had always been competitive, and at Oregon he began exploring tools for enhancing performance, including an unwieldy scuba-type mouthpiece that used chemical crystals to absorb oxygen, supposedly mimicking the effects of training at altitude,” Jennifer Kahn wrote. “To help his muscles recover from workouts, Salazar experimented with dimethyl sulfoxide, a lotion that horse trainers use to reduce inflammation in thoroughbred racehorses. A runner who knew Salazar at the time recalls that the lotion was absorbed quickly through the pores of the skin and then entered the bloodstream. ‘You’d rub it on, and then you’d get this real garlicky taste in your mouth,’ he explained. ‘That’s how you knew it was working.’ Eccentric as the technologies were, Salazar was meticulous in evaluating them: constantly monitoring the effect on his performance.”

+ Runner’s World founder Bob Anderson shared his experiences dealing with Phil Knight and Nike to his Facebook page after reading The Times story. I’ll leave it right here for you.

A version of this post first appeared in the morning shakeout, my weekly email newsletter covering running, writing, media and other topics that interest me. If you’d like for it to land in your inbox first thing on Tuesday mornings, subscribe here.