Conversations with Matt Hart: On the toxic culture plaguing Nike’s running program.

Ever since the early 1950s, laboratory-generated performance enhancing drugs have plagued the sports world, professional and amateur. Arguably, track and field stand atop the doping mountain with cycling and baseball a level lower. One of the major proponents of the doping trend may come as a surprise to some.

(Drum role please.)

For well over 20 years, Nike and some of its athletes have consistently tested the boundaries of sportsmanship and propriety by relying on PEDs for an advantage. On top of that, the company’s work culture appears to have straddled the line between ethical and non-ethical. Above all else, beating its competitors, regardless of how, appeared to outweigh all other concerns. As a result,

In Win at All Costs: Inside Nike Running and Its Culture of Deception, Matt Hart explores one of Nike’s major running programs, the Nike Oregon Project, and the role PEDs played in its success and eventually downfall. He spoke to SCINQ about his new book.

Author Matt Hart.

Many people know Nike primarily for their associations with basketball. Can you explain the company’s obsession with track and field, specifically running?

Nike is a running company at its core. It began in 1964 as Blue Ribbon Sports, a company that imported cheap Adidas running shoe knockoffs to sell at a markup in America. It’s founder was Phil Knight, a recent MBA graduate who had run for Bill Bowerman at the University of Oregon. His former running coach was a notorious tinkerer, and had been famously making shoes for some of his runners for years. When Knight approached him to buy the Onitsuka (which would become Asics in 1973) shoes for his atheltes, Bowerman instead bought into the company. They would sell the shoes out of the back of their cars at track meets. Years later they began making tennis and basketball shoes, but their core business was the running shoe market, one in which they don’t appear to make that much revenue from at this point, but one that they still feel obligated to invest in heavily.  

Who is Alberto Salazar and what was his role in Nike’s running program?

Salazar is a Cuban-born, American running legend, who won the New York City Marathon three times, and the Boston Marathon once in early 80s. He was sponsored by Nike and was one of the first runners to garner a large salary. He was brash and outspoken and even admitted to using unconventional drugs during his career. After he overtrained himself into a physiological hole, which caused his early retirement from sport, Phil Knight gave him a job in the marketing department at Nike. In 2001, Salazar started recruiting American runners for an elite team that would spare no expense to bring Nike’s American runners back to dominance at the Olympic and World Championship level.

There was a lot of negative activity going on at Nike, from various forms of cheating to bullying and intimidation of people inside and outside of the program. How far up the corporate ladder did information about the various abuses go?

Abuses themselves were apparent to anyone on the teams. This was just the way the coaches worked. Nike’s head of sports marketing, John Capriotti, is known as is detailed in the book, to be a brash and abusive man as well. So, its obvious that this comes from the upper ranks. Capriotti has threatened to kill rival coaches at track meets. Salazar, too, has tried to fight other coaches at track and field events. One former employee told me she heard gay coworkers called “dykes” by high-ranking Nike men in corporate meetings. “It’s crazy the amount of money these guys make. In Portland they start to feel like they are God’s gift,” she told me. “That played out in who they hired.”

Can you tie the Nike Oregon Project to the company’s broader business? What did they gain? How did results there translate into profits?

Running as a category made Nike tk in 2019. Before it was shuttered, the NOP had it’s own line of clothing and shoes available to anyone online and in their stores. Had I ever gotten to interview John Capriotti or Mark Parker, I would have asked them to justify the running budget when the revenue doesn’t warrant such expense. I do believe it’s simply because they are a running shoe brand, and winning back that market, and making it profitable is important to them.

Which PEDs played the most significant role in the Nike Oregon Project and what kind of advantage did they provide the users?

This is frankly impossible to say. If Rupp was given testosterone, as the evidence suggest, that is easily the biggest advantage. From what we know, I’d probably say the prednisone that Rupp has been on since high school. From the book: “The drug became popular among cheaters in the Lance Armstrong era for its potent ability to revive a tired athlete, allowing them to sleep less and train more. It’s a powerful systemic anti-inflammatory drug, usually prescribed for arthritis, blood disorders, skin diseases, and cancer. Taking it during a hard training block or a Tour de France, for example, makes an athlete feel invincible because it decreases the immune system response to various insults, and effectively tamps down the inevitable inflammation of hard training that makes one feel sore and achy. But more than anything, the stimulating effect of the drug allows one to train hard, sleep less, and still feel the drive and energy to complete the hours of intense training, day after day, without getting tired.”

At a certain stage, you became directly involved in the Nike story. Can you discuss that?

As a journalist who would often write about performance-enhancing drugs, a confidential source sent me a UBS drive one day in 2017. On that drive was USADA’s entire case against the Nike team, which had been stolen by Russian hackers. I attempted to contact everyone mentioned in the report and then wrote a story about it for the New York Times that landed on the front page.  

In retrospect, what percentage of Nike track and field athletes were engaged in unsportsmanlike conduct?

Again, it’s really impossible to say, and running journalists are more concerned with staying in the athletes good graces than getting to the bottom of all this.I would say nearly all the Nike athletes training on the Nike campus with Salazar and Jerry Schumacher were using. Schumacher was pressured into having his athletes see Dr. Brown based on Salazar’s success and trupeting of his abilities. This was after he had split off with his own stable of athletes… but when they all returned from Houston with new thyroid and asthma diagnoses and new prescription drugs to remedy them he sounded an alarm and told them each to go see doctors outside of the Nike ecosystem for second and third opinions. He knew if his athletes took the drugs they were stepping into a gray area that they might regret later.

Have Nike cleaned up their programs? Is it even realistic to expect them to do so?

It’s hard to say, but I believe so. After that experience with Dr. Brown, Schumacher’s teams set themselves against the NOP athletes. They were going to do things the right and honorable way, and I believe they still are today. Some of medications, like thyroid hormones, aren’t easy to get off, however, and some athletes might have to remain on them for the reset of their lives, which is sad when you consider they didn’t need them to begin with (that’s based on their own blood work, not my opinion). So if I had to guess I’d say Galen Rupp is still on thyroid medication, for instance.

Finally, to the best of your knowledge, is Nike and their conduct described in Win At All Costs an outlier in the sports world or are they closer to the norm?

I would say they were the tip of the spear. With the possibly exception of professional cycling, the million dollar yearly budget Nike gave Salazar to experiment is unheard of. When word got around that all of Salazar’s athletes were on Albuterol, for instance, many athletes went to their doctors and some percentage of them got on the same drugs. The higher the budget the more likely other teams were to have team docotrs and try prescription drug interventions. Cycling has famously been using prescription drugs to lose weight and race faster ever since the end of the Lance Armstrong-era. They had to clean up, and I’ll quote investigative journalist David Walsh here, “The anti-doping fight has moved on, but it hasn’t moved far enough because what you see now is riders and teams operating in what we call the gray areas, using a legal medication for the wrong reason.”

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