Salazar ‘used his athletes like lab animals’

Evil genius? He transformed Farah from no-hoper to Britain’s most-successful-ever track athlete. © Getty

Has the time come to legalise doping? The world of athletics is in turmoil after Alberto Salazar’s shock ban from coaching for four years. Many are now calling for a radical fresh start.

For years, there had been rumours. But they were just that — rumours.

Initially, Mark Daly of the BBC, had been focusing on historical claims of doping by famous British athletes in the 1980s.

But athletes and coaches began to share with him rumours of much more recent misconduct.

They pointed to one of the most prominent figures in the history of the sport: Alberto Salazar, coach of Britain’s Mo Farah.

Salazar was legendary in US athletics circles, and the most prominent running coach in the world.

Winner of the New York Marathon three years in a row from 1980-82, he had once pushed so hard in a race, he ran himself unconscious and had the last rites administered.

Rumours about the American, while not public, were persistent in elite circles: whispers of unorthodox methods, athletes being given unnecessary prescriptions, and even the use of banned substances and methods at the prestigious Nike Oregon Project (NOP) over which Salazar presided.

Now, Salazar’s world has come crashing down.

While the sport reels from Tuesday’s ruling that Salazar has been banned for four years, the US Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart says Sir Mo Farah’s coach used his athletes like “laboratory animals”.

Taking aim at sportswear giant Nike, Tygart added, “They can’t find any excuses any more, they have to admit that experiments were done on athletes in their name and on their premises and that was just wrong.”

The scale of the story has rocked world athletics to the core.

Many leading voices are now calling for a radical fresh start — including the apparently shocking idea of ditching the decades-long battle to root out doping.

“There exists no obvious, clear-cut definition of what doping is,” says Verner Moller, Professor of Sports Science at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. “Nor is it clear that all doping is unhealthy.”

For instance, banned doping methods “include the use of intravenous drips containing sugar, salts, vitamins and minerals – all of which can have a positive contribution to health”.

Advocates say legalisation could make athletics fairer. Currently, only the richest can afford top doping doctors or legal non-medical performance-enhancing methods, such as hyperbaric chambers and specially manufactured sportswear.

Taking the plunge

This is madness, say traditionalists. Legalising doping is the thin end of a wedge that leads to a freak show. Imagine, in 20 years time, specially bio-engineered athletes performing miracles for a gawping public, only to be discarded to face an early death once their triumphs are over.

Not so fast, say reformers. Legalised doping can be carefully controlled. Modern athletes are hitting the limits of achievement. Any further improvement will require performance enhancers. Why should we stop athletes from taking drugs if they are willing, and know the health risks? And new technology, like genetic engineering, will spell the end for drug regulation anyway.

You Decide

  1. Would you seek an unfair advantage in something you care about if you knew you could get away with it?
  2. Should all sports allow controlled doping?


  1. Work in groups of three. List factors which give people an advantage in sport (for example, height or diet). Discuss: Which advantages are fair? Which are unfair? Should action be taken to make the unfair ones fairer?
  2. The World Anti-Doping Agency has asked you to submit a one-page report on the merits of current doping rules. Present the case in favour of a ban, the case against it, and your personal opinion.

Some People Say...

“I’ve been asked a lot lately if tennis is clean or not. I don’t know any more how you judge whether a sport is clean.”

Andy Murray, British tennis player from Scotland

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Greek athletes used hallucinogenic mushrooms and opium in the ancient Olympics; Roman gladiators used stimulants to gain an advantage, and the Mexican Tarahumara tribe took peyote to increase their endurance.
What do we not know?
Whether calls to allow performance-enhancing substances will have any effect. Torbjörn Tännsjö in The Boston Globe has outlined a “moral case” for the move. In The Financial Times, Clive Cookson has attacked the “misplaced sense of moral outrage” behind doping rules. And Telegraph columnist James Kirkup says: “We should allow all of them. Not just drugs either: gene therapy, DNA modification, the lot.”

Word Watch

To administer drugs to (a racehorse, greyhound, or athlete) in order to inhibit or enhance sporting performance.
Alberto Salazar
An American track coach and former world-class, long-distance runner, currently the head coach of the Nike Oregon Project in Portland, Oregon.
Last rites
In the Catholic church, the last prayers said before someone’s death.
Nike Oregon Project
A prestigious running, training group that provides a training ground to develop the best distance runners in the world.
US Anti-Doping Agency
A non-profit, non-governmental organisation, and the national anti-doping organisation for the USA.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a well-established treatment for decompression sickness, a hazard of scuba diving. Other conditions treated with hyperbaric oxygen therapy include serious infections, bubbles of air in your blood vessels, and wounds that won’t heal as a result of diabetes or radiation injury.
Thin end of a wedge
The start of a harmful development.


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