Alberto Salazar’s legend was built on seemingly superhuman performances.
In the 1982 Boston Marathon, he battled Dick Beardsley stride for stride for more than two hours before outkicking him in a thrilling finish dubbed the “duel in the sun.” In 1978, he collapsed after finishing the Falmouth Road Race and was administered last rites when his temperature soared to 108. In 1994, after almost a decade’s absence from competition, he won the 56-mile Comrades Marathon, a punishing test of endurance across the hot hills of South Africa.
But now, some question whether Salazar’s quest to test the limits of human performance, which he began as a teenage track star at Wayland High School, may have crossed the line. American antidoping authorities are investigating allegations of performance-enhancing drug-use in Salazar’s vaunted training program, the Nike Oregon Project, which has entered two elite runners, Galen Rupp and Jordan Hasay, in Monday’s Boston Marathon.
The US Anti-Doping Agency launched the investigation nearly three years ago after an article by ProPublica and the BBC detailed allegations by former runners and employees of the project, who say Salazar experimented with testosterone gel and other prescription drugs.
The accusations gained further attention last year, when The New York Times reported that the US Anti-Doping Agency believes Salazar worked with a Texas endocrinologist to procure medically unnecessary prescriptions to boost his athletes’ performances.
Salazar has emphatically denied violating doping rules, and none of his runners, including Rupp and Hasay, have ever tested positive for a banned substance. But the investigation has caused some competitors to question Rupp, an Olympian who finished second in Boston last year, and Hasay, who finished third in the women’s division, in the fastest debut marathon ever by an American woman.
“There’s still an investigation going on, so it’s hard to truly and genuinely get excited about the performances that I’m watching,” Shalane Flanagan, a Marblehead native who won last year’s New York City Marathon, told reporters in October, after Rupp won the Chicago Marathon and Hasay finished third.
“We don’t get to choose our parents, but we certainly get to choose our friends and our coaches and who we want to include in our circle and put our faith and our trust in,” said Flanagan, who will compete against Hasay on Monday.
Greg Meyer, the 1983 Boston Marathon winner who has known Salazar since the 1970s, when they were training partners at the Greater Boston Track Club, said Rupp and Hasay haven’t run so fast in recent marathons that they would appear to be drug-aided.
Yet their choice to train under Salazar, 59, despite the accusations against him, will make people question their highly anticipated races in Boston, Meyer said.
“Any time there’s the suspicion of performance-enhancing drugs in any sport, it puts a cloud over it,” he said. “It makes people wonder who’s cheating and who’s not.”
US antidoping officials declined to comment, but confirmed they are still investigating Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project. Nike did not respond to a request for comment or make Salazar, Rupp, or Hasay available for interviews.
In a lengthy open letter published on the Nike website in 2015, Salazar defended the Oregon Project, a program financed by the apparel company that has seen remarkable success in its effort to restore American distance running to greatness on the international stage.
“I will never permit doping,” he wrote. “I have not and will not condone any athlete I train using a banned substance and would never encourage any athlete to use a banned substance. We have worked very, very hard to achieve our successes and are proud of our accomplishments.”
In the ProPublica story, the allegations against Salazar came from former Oregon Project runners, including Kara Goucher, an Olympian who finished third in the 2009 Boston Marathon, and Steve Magness, Salazar’s former assistant coach.
Goucher told ProPublica that Salazar urged her to take prescription thyroid medication to lose weight after she gave birth. She said Salazar also encouraged Rupp to get intravenous saline before races. While not a banned substance, saline can be used to mask drug use.
“He is sort of a win-at-all-costs person, and it’s hurting the sport,” Goucher told ProPublica.
Magness told ProPublica that he saw Rupp receive a hollowed-out book from Salazar, with two pills taped inside, before a race in Germany. Magness also recounted seeing a notation in Rupp’s file that indicated Rupp had been taking prednisone — a steroid used to treat asthma — and testosterone since high school. Rupp, 31, has been coached by Salazar since he was 15.
Last year’s New York Times story was based on a confidential US Anti-Doping Agency report that depicted a coercive environment at the Nike Oregon Project, where runners felt pressure to accept Salazar’s medical advice or risk losing their support from the well-financed program.
The report alleged that Salazar worked with Dr. Jeffrey S. Brown, a Houston endocrinologist, to obtain thyroid medication, prescription-dose vitamin D, and testosterone for his athletes.
Quoting the sworn testimony of Dathan Ritzenhein, an elite runner who left the program in 2014, the report describes Salazar working with Brown to give an infusion of an amino acid called L-carnitine to Rupp and to Ritzenhein, as he prepared for the Olympic trials in 2012. L-carnitine is not a banned substance, but the infusion method is prohibited, the report said.
Bill Rodgers, the four-time Boston Marathon champion, who also trained with Salazar at the Greater Boston Track Club, staunchly defended his former rival, describing him as a devout Catholic with unimpeachable morals who has “more knowledge of training than anyone I’ve ever met.”
“I can’t see Alberto doing anything against the doping rules in track and field and athletics,” he said. “This is not the case of Lance Armstrong.”
He attributed the allegations to disgruntled former Oregon Project athletes and employees who have not enjoyed Salazar’s success.
“I think there’s a lot of jealousy in the sports world,” Rodgers said.
“And you can just see that in certain athletes who complain about Alberto. But I stick with Alberto. I think he’s honest. And I think Galen is honest, and Jordan is, as well.”
Still, Rodgers lamented that the Boston Marathon has been tainted by doping, pointing out that 2014 winner, Rita Jeptoo of Kenya, was stripped of her title two years ago after she tested positive for the blood-booster erythropoietin, known as EPO.
“I love the Boston Marathon, and I think in some ways it was better years ago when everyone was clean,” Rodgers said. “You ran for the honor, and for integrity, and it was everything Boston stood for.”
Tom Grilk, chief executive of the Boston Athletic Association, which hosts the Marathon, said the organization works with the US Anti-Doping Agency to test elite runners before the race and to re-test the top finishers after the race.
“I do want people to know we take this stuff seriously,” he said.
Amby Burfoot, the 1968 Boston Marathon winner, who has known Salazar since he was smashing records at Wayland High, said Salazar is as driven as any coach or athlete could ever be, “but that is no sin.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that Alberto would push the boundaries as far as he possibly could, but I don’t think he would step over,” Burfoot said. “The penalties are too great to his reputation and Nike’s.”
He said he would not be surprised if Rupp — whom he called “the greatest American runner of all time” — wins Boston on Monday, and Hasay finishes in the top of the field. If that happens, he said, he will not question their achievements.
“They’ve both been so good for so long, I’m going to choose to believe in them until proven wrong,” Burfoot said. “I just don’t see anything in their trajectories as athletes that is suspicious. I just have my fingers crossed and am praying, like everyone else, that they’re good.”