Nike shuts down Oregon Project after doping scandal

Alberto Salazar was barred for four years for trafficking testosterone and tampering with evidence. (AP pic)

NEW YORK: Nike Inc is shutting down its famed Oregon Project after a top coach was banned for doping rules violations, a fallout of the scandal that’s engulfed the biggest corporate backer of track and field sports.

A company spokesman confirmed the decision, which came less than two weeks after legendary track coach Alberto Salazar was barred from the sport for four years.

The end of the project is a blow to Nike’s vast efforts in track and field. The company does US$4.5 billion in annual running sales alone, and its marketing within the professional ranks is a large part of that appeal.

Nike is the biggest sponsor of running both in the US and abroad, with close partnerships with the US Olympic Committee and USA Track & Field, plus international events and national bodies.

“This situation, along with ongoing unsubstantiated assertions, is a distraction for many of the athletes and is compromising their ability to focus on their training and competition needs,” Nike Chief Executive Officer Mark Parker said in a letter sent to the project team yesterday.

“I have therefore made the decision to wind down the Oregon Project.”

Following a US Anti-Doping Agency probe that spanned years, an independent arbitration panel found that Salazar helped traffic testosterone, a banned substance, and tampered with evidence, but found no evidence that he administered the drugs to runners. Salazar has denied wrongdoing and has said he will appeal.

Cutting edge

Parker, who was found by the agency to have been aware of some of Salazar’s activity, has also stood by the coach.

Salazar and Tom Clarke, still a Nike executive, helped found the Nike Oregon Project in 2001. The goal was to use cutting-edge technology – Nike’s – and training methods to create a distance running juggernaut. It was a union of expertise and sponsorship unlike any other in the track world.

Working out of Nike’s Oregon headquarters, Salazar and his team found a lot of success, especially with British distance runner Mo Farah, who won a total of four Olympic gold medals at the 2012 and 2016 games.

US runner Galen Rupp, a two-time Olympian, was perhaps Salazar’s other most successful runner.

Over time the team became a focus of the track community, both for Salazar’s training methods and for rumours of doping. Many of those allegations formed the backbone of USADA‘s surprise ruling against him.

The four-year ban was the doping agency’s highest-profile ruling since 2016, when it banned tainted cycling champion Lance Armstrong for life.

Right now, the NOP has a strong stable of runners, many of whom are coached by people other than Salazar. They include Dutch star Sifan Hassan, who recently won the women’s 10,000m at the World Championships in Qatar and US sprinter Donavan Brazier, who set a US record in the men’s 800m at the same race.

Nike will help all of its athletes under the programme with choosing the coaching set-up that is right for them in this transition, Parker said.