I’m in Louisville, KY this week grading AP U.S History exams so I haven’t had the time to pay close attention to the news, which is a shame because it has been a busy news week between FIFA, Sepp Blatter, and today’s story about Galen Rupp and Alberto Salazar. As a former distance runner and track coach, I’ve had a couple of people ask me today about the Alberto Salazar and Galen Rupp story. Here’s my rapid reaction and quick thoughts. Let me know what you think or what other questions the story bring to mind.
First off, the news honestly doesn’t surprise me. I feel bad for Galen Rupp and Mo Farah, but it seems like Salazar has been doing shady things trying to get ahead for years. Those crazy extra oxygen tents and special houses in Oregon, plus his own ultra competitive career. It’s sad to say this, but in track and field it’s becoming more common to assume people are dirty rather than clean. This is especially true in sprinting, so that this involve distance running just broaden those concerns. At the same time, I hate how the news always tries to say either the coach or the athlete are innocent while the other is guilty (in this case Rupp is innocent while Salazar is the villan). Both have agency and are guilty of what happened. Elite athlete are very aware of what they put in and on their bodies. To be sure, Rupp and Salazar have a long relationship that dates to his teen years and maybe Salazar took advantage of an ambitious Rupp willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. But, if the doping has been going on that long it would have been detected by now, right? Maybe not, maybe its a new sophisticated test or something. Regardless, both individuals have agency and it tremendously affects them both.
It’ll be interesting to see how Nike reacts. Rupp and Salazar are two of their big athletes in distance running and both spend a lot o time at their training center. I’m pretty sure Salazar is a Nike coach (as well as a special coach for USATF and the British Track and Field body). This really creates questions about not just his ability and motives, but also those governing bodies and their screening/oversight processes. Nike is hurt not just with its track and field interests, but also with the emerging case file against it. Given the rumors about its involvement in FIFA — a lot of folks assume they’re involved in the bribing — the company is starting to look even more greedy and shady than it already did. Nike’s actions and greed beg us to ask several broader questions about the nature of modern sport. Such as: What’s more important, sportsmanship, fair play, winning, marketing, money? As apparel companies, promoters, media conglomerates, and sponsorships dollars increase and become more and more tied to each other (sometimes even being the same people), these questions become more and more important. You can ask the same thing about ESPN, College Football, and the SEC, for example. Does winning matter less if no one is watching or you make less money? This has become the culture of professional and amateur sports not just in the U.S. but globally.
It will also be interesting to see how USATF reacts. Rupp was only the 3rd American to ever medal in the Olympic 10K (and the first non-Native American) when he won silver at London in 2012. Many view him as America’s hope for distance running glory. What’s next for him? Sure, it hasn’t been proven yet, but doubt is often enough to destroy your career — just look at MLB. Does USATF need distance running or big name athletes? Maybe. USADA has done a good job of holding its ground and I trust them to continue to do so, but Rupp was in some ways a “Great White [American] Hope” in a sport often dominated by Africans. It’s a brutal indictment to those wanting to see a revival of American distance running, akin to the days of Salazar, Ryun, Santee, and Prefontaine. Globalization has rendered that landscape obsolete, and this news is just one more reminder. Western chemistry is perhaps the only match, but it’s always exposed in the end.
This story is an entry point into conversations about a lot of different issues and elicits questions that we don’t have answers to. While I’m sure this story will soon fade away — especially because track and field isn’t a major sport that capture the 24-hour news cycle, like the NFL — these questions will remain.
I know many of you are track and field fans. What do you think? What questions does it make you ask? How do you see the story playing out?