Alberto Salazar Ban Looms Large Over the 2019 Chicago Marathon, Elite Athletes

Despite the possibility of record-breaking performances at Sunday's Chicago Marathon, the cloud of Salazar's controversy hangs over the race and its elite runners.
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CHICAGO – Press conferences for elite athletes at major marathons tend to follow a similar structure. Organizers and race directors talk about their excitement for the event and boast about the competitive field. Past champions express pride in returning to a specific city for a title defense. After a moderator lofts a few softball questions, the athletes disperse to smaller tables for breakout sessions with reporters.

But on Friday, the elite athlete press conferences ahead of the Chicago Marathon had a different feel. Just 10 days ago, the United States Anti-Doping Agency banned renowned track coach Alberto Salazar for four years due to anti-doping violations that included trafficking testosterone, infusing prohibited amounts of L-carnitine and tampering doping control. Salazar issued a statement, denied any wrongdoing and is appealing the decision. At the Hilton Chicago’s Continental Ballroom on Friday, marathon executive director Carey Pinkowski opened the press conferences by expressing his support of the USADA's decision. Then, much of the attention turned to Salazar’s athletes—Galen Rupp and Jordan Hasay—before they race on Sunday without their coach present.

“I’m focused on the race,” Rupp said during the press conference. “I will reiterate that no Oregon Project athlete has ever tested positive. They’ve never been found to have used a banned substance or method... I love running. I’m here to race. It’s been a very difficult road for me in the last year and I’m just happy to be back doing what I love.”

Rupp, 33, has worked with Salazar since he was a high school star at Portland, Oregon's Central Catholic High School. He won NCAA titles while being independently coached by Salazar at the University of Oregon. For nearly two decades, Rupp and Salazar's relationship has always been viewed as a father-and-son connection. As noted last week by the Wall Street Journal, Salazar wrote in his memoir that when he thought he was dying following a heart attack in the summer of 2007, he told Nike founder Phil Knight, “If something happens to me, promise me you’ll take care of Galen.”

On Wednesday night, Nike disbanded the team and shut down its website and social media channels. Nike chairman, president and CEO Mark Parker issued a memo that described the situation as a “distraction for many of the athletes and is compromising their ability to focus on their training and competition needs.” Parker reiterated that the USADA panel determined there was no doping or performance enhancing drugs usage by Oregon Project athletes. Nike asserts that they had no wrongdoing and will continue to support Salazar in his appeal process.

Rupp—who said he found out about the ban on the news “like everyone else"—is also standing by his coach’s appeal. He has been the star and face of the Nike Oregon Project training group since turning professional in 2009 and won a silver medal in the 10,000 meters at the 2012 Olympics and a bronze medal in the marathon at the ’16 Olympics. In ’17, Rupp became the first American man to win the Chicago Marathon and embraced Salazar shortly after crossing the finish line.

It is doubtful Salazar will be in Chicago for the race. When asked if he has made any contact with his coach, Rupp said he hasn't had "any professional or sport-related contact with him since the announcement came out."

When pressed by LetsRun.com’s Jonathan Gault whether he’s messaged the longtime coach as a friend, Rupp reiterated: “I just answered that. I haven’t had any sports related contact with him, professional contact—respecting the decision. I’ll always follow the rules like I always have.”

Rupp has never tested positive for any performance-enhancing drugs and has not been charged or accused of cheating by USADA. He has repeatedly defended his coach since 2015, when BBC and ProPublica published the first allegations of Salazar pushing the boundaries on his athletes and possibly violating anti-doping code with unethical practices, including rubbing testosterone on his own sons to see how much of the substance could lead to a positive test. Rupp told the USADA arbitration panel that at a 2009 track meet, someone rubbed something wet on his back, which led to Salazar’s concern for possible sabotage. Sprinter Justin Gatlin served a doping ban and used the same explanation for a 2006 positive test. Salazar responded to the BBC and ProPublica report with a 28-page document on the Oregon project’s website.

After about four minutes of questioning on Salazar, Rupp told reporters that he wanted to focus on the race and closed himself off to further questions on his coach. He pointed toward the following statement that he provided organizers regarding the matter:

“First, as I’ve stated before, I am dedicated to clean sport and am completely against doping. I have trained for over a decade to get where I am today and have worked extremely hard for every accomplishment in my running career. The panels’ decisions made it clear that neither I nor any Oregon Project athlete ever received any banned substance or were involved in any anti-doping rule violation. Since I first met and began working with Alberto 19 years ago, he has always put my health and well being first and has done the same for his other athletes. I have personally seen him take great care to comply with the WADA Code and prevent any violations of any anti-doping rules. I understand he is appealing the decision and wish him success. From my experience, he has always done his best for his athletes and the sport. Now, I am focused on the Chicago Marathon where I will be competing for the first time without my coach and friend.”

At the IAAF World Championships in Doha earlier this month, the sport’s governing body revoked Salazar’s credentials and barred him from being trackside or communicating with any of his athletes. Oregon Project athletes still managed to find success without any final instructions from Salazar. Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands won gold in the women’s 10,000 meters and 1,500 meters before she delivered an impassioned declaration of innocence in the post-race press conference. “If they want to test me they can test me every single day. Every single day," she said. "I believe in clean sport. I'm always clean."

Hasay, 28, has been coached by Salazar since she signed with Nike in 2013. Under Salazar’s guidance, she made two U.S. national teams on the track, but missed the 2016 Olympic team, and has since shifted her attention to the roads. At the 2017 Boston Marathon, Hasay wowed by clocking the fastest debut marathon by an American woman. She lowered that personal best to 2:20:57 at the Chicago Marathon that same year and showed promise as one of America’s next great marathoners.

Hasay broke her silence on Salazar with an Instagram post on Oct. 2, where she described Salazar as a father figure in her life and affirmed he “treated me with nothing but respect, and the highest of ethical coaching standards.” A week later, she told Runner’s World that she had not spoken to Salazar since the night before the news. She said she has yet to read USADA’s 140-page ruling.

“I don’t feel personally hurt,” Hasay said. “I trust what I know and what I’ve seen. I’ve never been offered anything or seen anything. If that were to happen, I would’ve left long ago.”

Sitting near Rupp and Hasay was Mo Farah, the four-time Olympic gold medalist and reigning Chicago Marathon champion who was coached by Alberto Salazar from 2011 until 2017, when he left four months after Salazar was secretly charged by USADA. At the time, he told The Sun that his exit was not “because of the doping allegations.”

Farah was surrounded by two security guards and several Nike employees while being questioned by members of the British press for 12 minutes. He fidgeted in his seat as he fired back at reporters for including his name in headlines regarding his former coach. He echoed Hassan’s outcry and called to be tested every day.

“I’ve not done anything wrong,” Farah said. "Let’s be clear. These allegations [are] about Alberto Salazar and the Oregon Project.”

On Sunday, Farah has a chance to become the first man defend his Chicago Marathon title since 2010, and a victory would surely set him up as a contender for gold at next summer’s Olympics. Rupp is looking surmount a major comeback after Achilles surgery less than a year ago and Hasay could break the American record in the marathon. But while the Chicago Marathon proves to be a pivotal race for these athletes, the cloud of Salazar's controversy continues to loom.