Nike’s death grip on American sports
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Nike’s universally recognizable swoosh pervades nearly every sport, all over the world. It is venerated by the public as a symbol of fashion and athleticism. However, recently the footwear giant has arguably overstepped its bounds in the American sports arena — more specifically, in Track and Field and the running community. Three instances in particular bring this issue into focus, all of which have large implications on the upcoming IAAF World Championships, the de facto international competition and the culmination of a six-plus month-long season for elite Track and Field athletes.
The Nike Oregon Project and Doping
One such instance involves alleged doping in the exclusive Nike Oregon Project. Often inflated in the starry eyes of impressionable amateur runners, the Nike Oregon Project was created due to frustration with the performance of American athletes on a world stage. At the 2001 Boston Marathon, for example, the top American finisher was Rod de Haven in 6th place. According to Nike’s own Oregon Project website, head coach Alberto Salazar asked, “How could it come to this? How can we be so excited about 6th place?” It was out of this frustration that the Oregon Project was born.
Salazar himself was an elite long distance runner in his prime. He won the New York Marathon 3 years in a row, the New York Marathon once, and won two USATF championship titles in the 10k. His last large victory, however, was over 3 decades ago in 1983. Now, as head coach for the Oregon Project, he continues to make an impact in the running community, and arguably on American sports as a whole. Recently, however, some people are questioning whether this impact will be a positive one, or if Salazar will leave a scar on the sport of running for decades to come.
Recent allegations against Salazar accuse him of doping several of his current athletes — most of these accusations come from former NOP athletes Kara and Adam Goucher and former NOP assistant coach Steve Magness.
Salazar is known for his highly unorthodox training methods; his athletes live in a sealed “altitude house” that filters oxygen out and simulates an atmosphere at 12,000 feet, but in a house at sea level in Portland. This stimulates red blood cell development and enhances athletic performance dramatically. His athletes also undergo cryotherapy regularly, meaning their muscles are supercooled to several hundred degrees below zero in an attempt to promote rapid recovery. His athletes run obscenely long distances, sleep 10 hours or more a night, and run on underwater treadmills, all in an attempt to sculpt their bodies into absolute peak condition.
These methods are all legal according to the standards set by WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) and the USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency). However, recently Salazar has come under fire — not for these unorthodox training methods, but for his alleged use of various drugs to enhance his athletes’ performances.
One such drug is prednisone. This prescription drug is a corticosteroid often used to treat asthma and allergies but is banned by the WADA because of its ability to reduce pain and increase oxygen intake. If an athlete has a medical need to take the drug, they can obtain an exemption from the WADA and continue to take the drug. The Nike Oregon Project’s star athlete, Galen Rupp, has allegedly been taking the medication on and off since high school, and Steve Magness told journalist David Epstein an eyewitness account of an incident involving prednisone during his time as assistant coach for the NOP. Magness claims that although Salazar couldn’t obtain an exemption from the WADA for Rupp to take prednisone before a race in Germany, that Rupp took the drug anyway and Magness was tasked with making sure Rupp’s urine didn’t test positive. “I hand-carried Galen’s urine through the airport, onto the plane, and into my rental car and drove to this clinic and dropped it off, and that was it,” said Magness. At their hotel in Germany, Magness claims that Salazar mailed him a hollowed-out book with pills inside and that Rupp took the pills several days before the race.
About a month later, Magness was tasked with examining athlete’s blood records and came across a document from 2002, when Rupp was still in high school, which stated that Rupp was “presently on prednisone and testosterone medication”. According to Magness, when he questioned Salazar about this, he dismissed the lab technician who performed the blood work as insane. Salazar, however, claims that he merely called the statement, not the technician, “crazy”.
Salazar has responded to many of the allegations against him and has confirmed the specific instance of Rupp’s prednisone use in Germany. Salazar claims that he never violated any WADA or USADA regulations and says that he mailed medication in a book to avoid hold-ups in customs. However, neither ProPublica reporter David Epstein or Magness claim that Salazar or Rupp violated any rules; they claim that Salazar manipulated the system to give Rupp an advantage.
Epstein has written two articles discussing this, and Salazar published a letter in response to the accusations; not long after, Epstein published a reply to Salazar’s letter. All three documents are linked below:
Epstein’s original article:
Epstein’s reply to Salazar:
Nick Symmonds and the USATF
Adding gasoline to Nike’s scandalous fire is the recent exclusion of Brooks sponsored athlete Nick Symmonds from the Nike sponsored USATF National Team for the upcoming IAAF World Championships.
Symmonds qualified for the national team by winning the 800 meters in the USATF national championships at the end of June. All athletes who qualified were expected to sign the USATF’s Statement of Conditions, which outlined the rules and regulations that they would be required to follow while competing at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing. However, Symmonds refused to sign. A link to the Statement of Conditions is below:
Symmonds’ main issue with the contract was the ambiguity in the term “‘official’ Team functions.” The USATF never explicitly defines this term and has been using the obscurity of the term to enforce rules that they never spelled out in the contract. Symmonds claims that the USATF sent him, and all other national team qualifiers, a letter telling them to “pack ONLY Team USA, Nike or non-branded apparel”. He also contends that “in 2014 during the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Sopot, Poland, I was bullied and threatened by USATF employees every day for wearing Brooks gear.”
Symmonds, as well as many other disgruntled athletes, are adamantly fighting for more freedoms in large sponsored competitions such as the IAAF championships. These professional athletes sign contracts with various sponsors, which is the main source of their income. Often times they choose sponsors whose products they enjoy using and feel a great amount of loyalty to the brands that pay their bills. This loyalty is squandered when athletes are required to wear a competitor’s gear during sponsored events, and more often than not the sponsor is Nike. According to letsrun.com, USATF CEO Max Siegel did not take bids for sponsorship from any company but Nike; Siegel owns a car racing company which is also sponsored by Nike. This is just one example of Nike taking hold of the sports industry and nudging out other competing entities. Currently Nike has over 55 percent of the market share in running shoe sales, and is exponentially larger than its closest competitor, Adidas. The infographics below show this in more detail:
Nike’s John Capriotti and Brooks’ coach David Mackey
Yet another instance of Nike showing unprofessional animosity towards its competitors occurred after the 1500 meters during the USATF National Championships in the medical tent on the field.
Head coach of the elite Brooks Beasts Track Club, David Mackey, was sitting in the tent talking to his athlete, Dorian Ulrey, who had just competed in the 1500. But suddenly, according to witnesses, Nike Global Director of Athletics John Capriotti came storming through the tent with three other Nike officials hot on his heels. According to the police report filed by Mackey, Capriotti made a beeline for Mackey told him, “We gotta talk right now.” He then allegedly took a knee and whispered, “You know what you f****n’ did. I’m gonna f****n’ kill you.” Once again, according to the police report, Capriotti pushed Mackey hard in the chest with two fingers, twice, and “made some statements eluding (sic) to Mackey being involved in the [Nike Oregon Project] doping scandal that was reported just before the championships began.”
Mackey claims he still doesn’t understand why Capriotti threatened him, but he refuses to comment on the recent doping allegations towards the Nike Oregon Project.
None of these recent occurrences paint a very pretty picture of Nike. Although many Nike sponsored athletes and clubs are still likely to be completely legitimate, including some Nike Oregon Project runners, the Bowerman Track Club, and Oregon Track Club Elite, a handful of corrupt individuals and scandalous acts have tainted the reputation of an otherwise inspiring company that has made athleticism desirable and fashionable for the public. However, for Nike to be a true ally of sports — and more specifically running — it needs to stop edging out competing companies and give athletes around the world fair competition and the choice to use other sponsors’ gear.
Sports are about fun and fair play, both on and off the playing field.