First in a series
Several weeks before doping allegations of epic proportions brought widespread media attention over the weekend, Alberto Salazar’s name was at the center of serious doping allegations that also triggered major coverage.
A BBC/ProPublica investigative report released in early June, alleges the Nike Oregon Project coach first gave star pupil Galen Rupp, silver medalist in the 10,000 meters and runnerup to training partner Mo Farah at the 2012 London Games and seven-time national champion in that race, testosterone, a banned performance-enhancing drug, at age 16. It’s also alleged that Salazar “regularly works around rules regarding prescription medicines,” runnersworld.com summarized.
“Therapeutic Use Exemptions, or TUEs,” the website noted, “allow athletes to take for medical reasons prescription medications otherwise not allowed by anti-doping rules. A main allegation against Salazar has been that he helps runners be improperly diagnosed with conditions, especially asthma and hypothyroidism, so that they can receive TUEs.”
Salazar, a three-time New York City Marathon winner in succession (1980-82), vehemently denied the charges in a combative, two-part rebuttal, nearly 12,000 words in all, that was posted online. Salazar, however, “confirmed . . . he tested testosterone gel on both of his sons,” runnersworld.com wrote.
Victor Conte, the BALCO founder who served four months in prison for his role in supplying around 30 athletes, including MLB, NFL and track and field stars, with PEDs, starting in 2000 until federal agents raided BALCO headquarters in ’03, said Salazar’s professional ethics are highly questionable.
In a recent phone interview with The Japan Times, Conte, now an outspoken anti-doping advocate, noted that Dr. Don Catlin, who founded the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory, a drug-testing lab, in 1982, and is now CEO and president of Anti-Doping Research, Inc. has been quoted as saying “(Salazar) seemed to be always coming up with a variety of performance-enhancing substances that he was attempting to get these exemptions for and most of which were denied. Don Catlin has gone on the record saying that he’s been suspicious of Alberto Salazar for many years. It isn’t anything new.”
Asked to specifically analyzed Salazar’s methods, Conte responded by saying, “Well, it seems that he’s been someone that’s studied how to circumvent the system . . . enrolling doctors to assist you to do whatever tests they do to these various exercise-induced asthma medications.”
“The fact that somebody is giving testosterone to their own kids and sending in samples,” Conte added, “that’s what I did with BALCO. It’s exactly what I did. It was diagnostic. It was pre-testing. Why did I do that? Because I was trying to circumvent the testing? Why else would you do it.”
There are other doping scandals and jaw-dropping allegations grabbing major attention, too, including:
■ Micro-dosing, which will be explored in greater detail later in this series, was highlighted in the BBC “Panorama” documentary and sheds light on a rising epidemic that sports governing body officials will have to tackle in the future.
■ In mid-July, The Associated Press reported that “more than 25 Russian (race) walkers have been punished for doping in recent years, with at least 20 of them trained by (head coach Viktor) Chegin . . .”
The Russian Athletics Federation announced Russia’s race-walking team has dropped out of international competitions “to avoid causing damage to the image of Russian athletics and Russian sport as a whole,” according to a statement published by AP.
■ What’s more, last week, The New York Times reported on another doping-related development: “Recent positive drug tests by two cyclists suggest there is a new, cutting-edge substance making its way to athletes looking for performance-enhancement: FG-4592, an experimental drug that increases production of red blood cells but has not yet been approved for human consumption.” FG-4592 can be ordered on the Internet from chemical-supply companies.
■ And then, this: A bombshell development took place over the weekend, with The Sunday Times, a London newspaper, and German broadcaster ARD reporting on a whopping amount of data delivered by a whistleblower. The Sunday Times described it as the “biggest leak of blood test data in sporting history” under this alarmist headline: “Revealed: sport’s dirtiest secret.”
Their massive data came from some 12,000 blood tests of 5,000 track and field athletes between 2001 and 2012, including the 2012 London Olympics.
Of those 5,000 athletes, the reports claim, 146 total medals, including 55 golds, ranging from 800 meters to marathon, in the Olympics and IAAF World Athletics Championships were captured by “athletes who have recorded suspicious tests.” Of those medalists, one-third of the athletes had suspicious doping results; furthermore, 10 medals were collected by athletes with “dubious test results” from the London Games.
Russian athletics, rocked by the aforementioned race-walking scandal, was dealt the biggest blow to its credibility in the weekend’s published material, with The Sunday Times reporting that between 2001-12 “more than 80 percent of medals (were) won by athletes from the country featuring suspicious tests.”
Kenya, meanwhile, had snagged 16 medals by athletes with suspicious tests results, it was also reported.
“(This reveals the) extraordinary extent of cheating,” The Sunday Times concluded.
For the two European media outlets, Australian doping experts Robin Parisotto and Michael Ashenden analyzed the IAAF blood tests. And according to their findings, “800 athletes registered blood values that are considered suspicious by WADA standards.”
“Never have I seen such an alarmingly abnormal set of blood values,” Parisotto was quoted as saying. “So many athletes appear to have doped with impunity.”
This stunning report was released just weeks before the 2015 IAAF World Athletics Championships, which will be held Aug. 22-30 in Beijing.
For years, Conte, the BALCO mastermind, has spoken out about inadequate testing methods and a lack of transparency at the highest levels of sports governing, including about the developing IAAF crisis and his high-level talks with World Anti-Doping Agency officials.
“From the German documentaries, in 2009 they started talking about giving samples to WADA-accredited labs to pre-screen (for drugs), I was telling them about this, and who it was and how they were doing it in 2007,” Conte said, referring to WADA. “Two years before, and they did nothing.”
Years ago, Conte said he had been informed by “people on the dark side” about athletes taking urine samples to labs where staff “would even screen the urine sample to make sure it wasn’t positive before they went into big races like Olympic Games or world championships.
“And I know because I was getting access to the data where this was being done by one of the biggest managers in track and field at the time, and this was before the 2003 World Championships in Paris.”
Is this just the tip of the iceberg?
Or simply business as usual for elite athletes?
Meanwhile, after the release of the “Panorama” program, a longtime IOC vice president, Dick Pound, the founding president of WADA addressed the issue of micro-dosing in an email to The Japan Times.
“Everyone has been aware of micro-dosing for some time and equally aware of the difficulties in detecting it, due to the short time when it can be caught,” Pound, the former IOC No. 2 boss, said in the email. “These new disclosures may make it easier to get amendments to the World Anti-Doping Code, to get a more robust approach to testing for such dosages.”
But as the summer has heated up, so, too, has the rhetoric in this ongoing Salazar saga.
On July 15, former Nike Oregon Project runner Kara Goucher, a central figure in the BBC/ProPublica investigative report, was quoted by letsrun.com as saying that “17 Oregon Project athletes and staff members have come forward to report what they saw during their time at the Oregon Project to the media, and since the USA Championships last month, I know that the number of people who have come forward to USADA has grown . . .”
The USADA is conducting an investigation of Salazar, and Farah, who also won the 5,000 gold in London, has been interviewed by agency officials.
Legendary hurdler Edwin Moses, now chairman of the USADA’s board of directors, did not respond to emails from The Japan Times seeking comment.
Goucher, an ex-Salazar pupil who was featured prominently in the BBC documentary that was released along with David Epstein’s ProPublica article, has not backtracked from her comments about Salazar.
“I firmly stand by all my statements,” she said in a statement posted on letsun.com and circulated to the media. “It was because of the illegal actions that occurred at the Oregon Project under Alberto Salazar that I chose to leave the group . . . Any new knowledge will be shared to USADA alone.”
In a July 1994 article in the Sun-Sentinel, a Florida newspaper, Sharon Robb reported that Prozac had become Salazar’s admitted drug of choice.
“The former world-class runner gave much of the credit for his first win in 12 years (at the Comrades Ultra-Marathon in South Africa) to the drug Prozac. The prescription drug is used primarily to treat depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder,” Robb reported.
Wrote Robb: “Salazar, 35, started taking Prozac last August after consulting with (two physicians).
“It wasn’t that he was sad or depressed, Salazar told reporters. It was that the years of intense training, heat prostration and dehydration played havoc with his body’s endocrine system and left him susceptible to fatigue, lethargy and illness — a chronic problem with today’s elite runners, cyclists and triathletes.”
A longtime behind-the-scenes specialist at U.S. high-altitude training camps said Salazar’s career is tainted without controversy. The source didn’t cite Salazar’s own admission that he used Prozac.
Instead, the source told The Japan Times, “It’s widely acknowledged that Alberto will do anything to win, even if that means having his athletes cross ethical and physiological boundaries. It was the same for his own career.”
Asthma inhalers cited
Conte, a former bassist for Tower of Power, has seen the good, the bad and the ugly in his decades in sports, with athletes and coaches seeking any edge they could find — legal or illegal — to put them in a better position to win.
Indeed, steroids remain the most discussed and well-known PEDs among the general public, but in years past Conte has observed that asthma inhalers have also found widespread use among U.S. Olympians and other athletes.
Conte said that in 2000 he became aware that about 80 percent of the U.S. swimming team that competed in the Sydney Summer Games was using asthma inhalers.
“Do I think that 80 percent of them have asthma?” he asked during his interview with this newspaper. “Or do I think that 80 percent of them figured out a way to get a therapeutic use exemption so they could use these substances to enhance performance?
The California native answered his own question, describing the inhalers as serving two purposes: “opening air passageways and being central nervous stimulants.”
In other words, a PED. Which also found its way into the 2004 Athens Olympics via the U.S. boxing team.
Before the American squad left for Athens, one boxer, Conte recalled, informed him that in Colorado Springs, Colorado, site of the U.S. Olympic Training Center, told him that six of nine (national team) pugilists “needed inhalers,” and only three stated they didn’t need them. The boxers were encouraged to use the inhalers, Conte added.
One boxer, Conte recalled, told him that “he had never had any problems breathing before in his life and didn’t like the way it made him feel. His dad told him to just throw it away.”
“When the boxer asked the coaches why he should use the inhaler if he didn’t have any problems breathing, they told him that it would help him to perform better. . . . Yes, Olympic boxing coaches were trying to give these asthma inhalers to the U.S. boxers in an attempt to enhance their performances.”
Oral medications and syringes to inject pharmaceutical concoctions are methods commonly known to the general public. But in recent years another option is rising from the underground into the mainstream of doping: synthetic testosterone that is placed inside one’s buttocks.
Conte has seen this from his involvement in boxing and mixed martial arts and as adviser to Margaret Goodman of the Volunteer Anti-Doping Association.
“I’m the guy that started this wave of doing carbon isotope ratio testing as an screen test as opposed to a confirmatory test,” he said, before adding, “I believe there’s a rampant use of synthetic testosterone.”
In 2012, boxer Lamont Peterson, a former light-welterweight world champion, tested positive for synthetic testosterone because of the more robust CIR test — used to determine if the testosterone is synthetic or natural — with a T/E (testosterone/epitestosterone ratio of 3.77:1 (a 1:1 ratio is considered normal for males), while WADA has a 4:1 standard for its tests.
Said Conte: “He (Peterson) went to a doctor in Las Vegas, and they made a little incision in the upper portion of his buttocks . . . and they inserted this little pellet, in his butt . . . and time-released his testosterone level and kept it elevated 24 hours a day, seven days a week for five months. And then you can go back and take the pellet out just like you get an oil change for your car, and you put a new one in.
“So the word on the streets is that there’s over a hundred boxers that have these pellets. I’m sure there’s plenty of other athletes that you could do this with as well.”
As far as how the Salazar saga will play out, Conte expects the coach will be banned by USADA.
“My opinion is they will bring doping charges against him,” Conte said, adding that “I think it’s likely that at some point he will be suspended.”