Mo Farah’s coach Alberto Salazar has launched a vigorous counterattack against allegations that he violated a series of anti-doping rules, chiding the BBC and the US news website ProPublica for their “remarkable display of irresponsible journalism” and demanding an immediate retraction of what he called “their false statements”.
Yet late on Wednesday night it emerged that the American coach was being investigated by the United States Anti-Doping Agency to see whether he encouraged Galen Rupp and other athletes at the Nike Oregon Project to bend or break anti-doping rules. Usada has interviewed more than a dozen witnesses and is actively pursuing documents and other evidence from Salazar, who coached Rupp to the silver medal in the 10,000m at the London Olympics.
Usada would not comment on whether an investigation was taking place but in a statement it said it took “all reports of doping seriously and we aggressively follow up on all information we receive in order to fulfil our oath to protect clean athletes and the integrity of competition”.
Salazar has largely kept his counsel in the three weeks since a Panorama documentary made a number of sensational claims, including that he gave Rupp the banned steroid testosterone as a 16-year-old. But in a 11,750-word statement published on the Nike Oregon Project website he finally tackled the allegations which he said had left “innocent athletes’ careers tarnished with nothing but innuendo, hearsay and rumour”.
Salazar insisted Rupp had only ever used legal testosterone supplements designed to naturally boost his levels, and that photographic evidence of testosterone being noted in his medical notes – obtained by his former assistant Steve Magness – was a recording error. “Galen has clearly stated that he did not take testosterone in December 2002 or at any other time,” he added.
In Salazar’s lengthy rebuttal there were frequent references to dates, documents and exhibits. For the most part it gave his response a more formal and almost legal air. But there was no disguising his anger as he accused Magness of “spreading malicious false allegations” and suggested he left the Nike Oregon Project not because he saw anything suspicious but because he “proved to be a poor coach who had difficulty building rapport with world-class athletes”.
He also claimed Magness had appeared happy when he discussed his role next to Salazar with Runner’s World in 2011. “Steve Magness did not leave the Oregon Project,” Salazar added. “The Oregon Project terminated his contract in 2012.”
However, last night Magness revealed that he had a signed document to show that there had been a “mutual termination” of his contract. “I also have a recording of the conversation Alberto and I had when we decided to part ways, which makes absolutely zero mention of any relationship between myself and any other athlete, or any mention of departing for failure as a coach,” he said. “I did not have a relationship with any athlete during my time at the Nike Oregon Project.
“Salazar goes to great lengths to use a July 2011 interview with me as evidence of my thought process at the time. I’d like to point out that since my employer was Nike at the time, I knew that speaking my true feelings would certainly jeopardise my career, so I stuck with the politically correct answers out of fear.
“Since leaving Nike, this fear has been realised and demonstrated on many occasions, first with the insistence of disclaimers and phone calls following a Lance Armstrong piece I wrote, which were followed up with a confrontation at the 2013 London athletics meeting. It’s humbling to say but the intimidation and fear of speaking out is what kept me from publicly addressing my concerns at that time.
“Salazar paints me as an inadequate coach, which my performance before and after Nike I dispute. In the past two years I have coached three individuals to top 20 at world championships.”
Magness is one of nearly 20 former athletes or employees who have spoken out against Salazar’s methods. Some have indicated to the Guardian that they also plan to respond to his report in the coming days. Several of Salazar’s current athletes, including Rupp, Matthew Centrowitz and Shannon Rowbury, are also expected to speak after competing in the US Track and Field championships, which begin evening.
Meanwhile a spokesman for the BBC defended its Panorama programme about Salazar, saying: “We are confident in our programme and that it was right to air the allegations of the witnesses who appeared on it. We stand by our journalism and it is now for the relevant anti-doping authorities to investigate the allegations.
“The detailed allegations were put to Mr Salazar four weeks before the programme aired, giving him the opportunity to address them in full. The BBC has also invited Alberto Salazar to be interviewed about the allegations, an offer which still stands.”
The back-and-forth is likely to continue in the coming days but Salazar says he has documented evidence going back to 2001 to show that another allegation, that Rupp was a frequent user of the asthma drug prednisone – which is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency for use in competition – is “completely false”. Rupp was forced to take allergy and thyroid medicine because he suffered from “severe allergies and breathing issues”, not because he was cheating, said Salazar. “He is medically diagnosed as suffering from both asthma and Hashimoto’s disease, a thyroid disease,” he added. “Galen takes asthma medication so he can breathe normally, not so he can run better. Galen takes his thyroid medication so that his body can function normally, not for any competitive advantage.”
But Salazar insisted Rupp was the exception not the rule at the Oregon Project when it came to using asthma and thyroid medication. He added that of the 55 athletes he had coached at Nike only five had been diagnosed with hypothyroidism and only eight with exercise-induced asthma after he had started working with them.
Salazar also rejected the claims of his former athlete Kara Goucher, the 10,000m world championship bronze medallist, that he had “coached” Rupp to try to flout the strict rules around Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUEs) certificates so he could get an intravenous drip before the 2011 world championships – and said Rupp had had only two TUEs since 2010.
But Salazar did admit that John Stiner, the massage therapist who worked briefly with him in 2008, was right to say that he had seen Androgel, a testosterone gel banned by Wada, in his room. However, he said it was strictly for his own use because he suffered from low virility levels.
“My excessive training as an athlete did extensive damage to my body,” he added. “One of the lingering negative effects from which I still suffer today is hypogonadism with significant symptoms, including multiple low testosterone serum levels. There is no question that I have a valid justification for my possession of Androgel as defined by the Wada code. I have never given Androgel to any of my athletes.”
Salazar also dismissed suggestions that a fridge full of vials in his training camp in Park City, which was seen by Stiner, was suspicious. “Stiner has tried to imply that Galen’s allergy immunotherapy medicine is something else,” he said. “It’s not. Galen has been receiving allergy immunotherapy vaccine injections since approximately 2004.”
Yet Salazar did admit he had “let his paranoia get the best of him” when he asked Dr Jeffrey Brown to conduct an experiment to find out whether it was possible for someone to rub enough testosterone cream on an athlete to make them test positive. It had come about, he said, because Justin Gatlin had blamed his positive test for exogenous testosterone on being sabotaged by his massage therapist, Chris Whetstine, and he was worried the same thing might happen to Rupp.
“On May 9, 2009, Galen Rupp’s University of Oregon 4×1 mile relay team set a new NCAA record,” he said. “Shortly after the race while talking to the press, Galen felt someone rubbing his shoulders. He turned around and it was Chris Whetstiner. Galen had heard the stories. He was extremely concerned and called me. I called the US Anti-doping Agency hotline to report it. Usada may still have the tapes or notes of my call. Nothing came of it but it caused us grave concern.”
Salazar concluded with a message for his detractors: “Let the haters hate; we’re going to keep winning through hard work, dedication and fair play.” But the immediate response from Usada and Magness suggests this saga will rumble on for a long while yet.
Nike later released its own statement saying it had conducted its own review and found no evidence of doping.
“We take the allegations very seriously as Nike does not condone the use of performance enhancing drugs in any manner,” it read. “Both Alberto and Galen have made their position clear and refute the allegations made against them, as shown in Alberto’s open letter.
“Furthermore we have conducted our own internal review and have found no evidence to support the allegations of doping.”