Earlier today, The New York Times released an article outlining the allegations made against Nike’s Oregon Project (NOP) in a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) report dating back to March 2016. If you suddenly feel like you’re having a vivid acid flashback or bout of deja vu, we’re with you. In February, the Sunday Times published a similar article, apparently referencing the same USADA report, which at that time, had been leaked by hacking group Fancy Bears.
In today’s article, the NYT obtained the confidential report and confirmed the allegations of the practices of NOP elite athletes being prescribed thyroid medication and injected with the naturally-occurring substance L-carnitine described in the Sunday Times. The NYT offers more insight into the culture of secrecy, manipulation, and coercion surrounding NOP and the coach described by author Matt Hart as a powerful and combative figure in the sport of track and field–Alberto Salazar himself.
Sparknotes for and takeaways from the piece here:
Ritzenhein on the record
The article uses athletes’ statements to get at the shady underside of NOP culture. Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein’s testimony in the USADA report reveals NOP’s prioritization of performance over athlete health and morality. Ritzenhein said Salazar prompted him to take thyroid medication even after his thyroid-stimulating hormone and testosterone levels were within the normal range, and that Salazar seemed to care more about optimizing his body’s endocrine system for an upcoming race “instead of just whatever was best for my health.”
Dr. Brown remains slippery
No news here, just the reminder that one Texan doctor’s alleged involvement with questionable medical practices related to NOP athletes remains hard to pin down. Dr. Jeffrey Stuart Brown is a Texas-based physician who was paid a monthly retainer to work with the Oregon Project athletes. Last summer, USADA sought a deposition from Dr. Brown, but the physician’s lawyer argued that the agency was engaged in a “fishing expedition to see if they can find some kind of a problem” and a court dismissed the deposition.
The L-carnitine “loophole”
Salazar realized that direct infusion had better and faster results than the 6-month timeline needed to see results from drinking a supplement with the naturally occurring substance L-carnitine used to help convert fat to energy. But, infusions/injections of >50 mL per 6 hour period are prohibited. So Salazar developed a regimen with Dr. Brown that could potentially appear above board–infusing athletes, including Ritzenhein before his 2012 marathon trials, with an L-carnitine drip for a little over an hour. This way, they could argue there was less than 50 mL infused.
Dr. Brown’s records
Dr. Brown handed over an allegedly altered version of Ritzenhein’s medical records to anti-doping officials to make the infusion seem like less than 50 mL. Officials compared the records sent with those provided by Ritzenhein himself and realized one page was taken out and an annotation of “45mL” was added.
Salazar’s cheery e-mail demeanor!
In a message he sent to Ritzenhein, Salazar was enthusiastically comforting: “Everything is above board and cleared thru USADA. They know me very well because I always get an okay before doing anything!” The NYT reported that the anti-doping agency said, “Salazar’s statement about always getting clearance with USADA ‘before doing anything’ is both ironic and inaccurate.”
Welling added to list of L-carnitine athletes
Rupp, Farah, Ritzenhein, were all Salazar-coached athletes who have been named in association with L-carnitine and the USADA investigation from previous reports. And now, Tara Welling (previously Erdmann) has been identified as having reportedly used L-carnitine.
Welling’s differing testimony
For the article, Welling refused to comment, and instead her Nike-employee husband sent a statement on her behalf, saying ”I had nothing but the utmost respect for Alberto and the staff. At this time USADA has not yet been able to share with me the details or evidence that supports these allegations.”
But, in her statements for the USADA report, Welling described Salazar giving her prescription drugs from his own personal supply. In terms of L-carnitine injections- Welling first denied knowing anything about it, and insisted she’d never seen Dr. Brown. USADA subsequently found a message from Salazar that noted Welling “got the L-carnitine injection yesterday from BrownD.”
Closemouthed nature of the Oregon Project
The NYT reports “When pressed about the infusion during her interview with the agency, Welling began crying. ‘I don’t know if Alberto did something to me,’ she said.” She also testified under oath that Salazar required his athletes to be “closemouthed” about anything related to the Oregon Project. Both Welling and Ritzenhein have since left NOP.
We’re far from the end in the USADA investigation into Salazar.