From one angle, the US Indoor Track & Field Championships was another strong weekend for Nike distance running. Eight of the 12 qualifiers for the World Indoor meet in the 800m, 1500m, and 3000m represent the brand, including five of the six men. Four of the five competing athletes from Alberto Salazar’s elite Nike Oregon Project finished first or second and qualified for World’s. As track goes, Nike prides itself on performance and the NOP is its premiere group. Check, check.
From another angle, never has an indoor track meet been such a public airing of a company’s dirty laundry. Not only did Salazar by numerous media accounts lose his cool, to put it mildly, but he was able to merit a DQ of another Nike coach’s athlete on no evidence, pointing a spotlight not only on the discord between the competing Nike training groups but more so on the inability of the USATF to govern the meet. The USATF is largely funded by Nike. And we haven’t even mentioned the Gabriele Grunewald fiasco that started the whole mess.
The more you look, the uglier it gets. In a statement on Grunewald’s ruling reversal USATF CEO Max Siegel either weakly defended or sold down the river those who made the initial ruling to DQ Grunewald as people who “volunteer their time to serve the sport.” Are we to take this as an explanation for what happened, that those making the initial ruling were unpaid citizens, perhaps with insufficient knowledge of track? That’s not exactly a Nike puppet state, that’s no state at all.
The good news: the off-the-track action was so egregious that the athletes and journalists have gone on record criticizing Salazar and the USATF, which is a touchy business given possible repercussions in terms of access to meets and athletes. Popular ex-Nike athletes Lauren Fleshman and Nick Symmonds had previously called for change in the sport, but when Nike’s current superstars Shalane Flanagan, Will Leer, and Lopez Lomong speak out and when the primary media site for track and field news letsrun.com gets in on the act condemning behavior and demanding answers, it signals the dam has broken. Kara Goucher has signed on to the budding T&F Athletes Association. Expect more to follow. The runners are unifying for change.
Salazar is a remarkable character, seemingly sketched out of a Greek tragedy. Having literally come back from the dead, he has forged a legacy both as athlete and coach transcending running. He’s Vince Lombardi but with MVPs from an actual playing career. It is ironic that what has brought about the public condemnation was Salazar getting his way. His ability to defend his athletes beyond reason and to exert absolute control over the results (initially) was his undoing in Albuquerque.
Salazar is coaching some of America’s (Galen Rupp, Mary Cain, Jordan Hasay) and the world’s (Mo Farah) most precious distance runners. Nike executives may forgive the dark side of his behavior for the sake of winning to a point, but the implosion last weekend is a distraction they (and one would guess, the parents of Mary Cain) may not tolerate again. For Nike, the athletes are the ones selling the brand, not the coach.
It is difficult but not impossible to imagine Salazar offering a public apology and the USATF, having hit rock bottom, changing for the better. The on-the-track distance running action at the Indoor Champs was thrilling, capping a surprisingly robust season for the sport in the U.S. The one race that wasn’t close, the women’s 1500m, was won by rising superstar Cain, only 17. This train wreck should help the sport grow on more stable footing.