In September of 2019, after years of speculation, the United States Anti-Doping Agency announced that Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar had been barred for four years from track and field for doping violations which included trafficking in testosterone, infusing athletes with improper amounts of L-carnitine and manipulating the doping control process. Soon after, it was announced that the Nike Oregon Project, which began in 2001 to bring American running back to greatness, would be disbanded.
The Icarus-like rise and fall one of the most powerful, glamorized, and well-funded coaches and programs in the history of track and field is the subject of a new book by Matt Hart, Win At All Costs: Inside Nike Running and its Culture of Deception, released earlier this week. Hart peels back the layers of scandals, secrets and deceit that shrouded the NOP for years while crafting captivating narrative around instances that have by now become publicly known — such as when Nike executive John Capriotti threatened to kill Brooks Beasts coach and former Nike employee Danny Mackey at the the 2015 USATF Championships.
The book is a cautionary tale about the use of “grey area” tactics and techniques in endurance sports, and a detailed look at how the sport of running’s soul became corrupted by doping. But Win At All Costs goes beyond shining light on the messy grey area of PEDs and banned substances in running, it’s also a critique of the American cultural values that undergirded and praised programs like the Nike Oregon Project. Though Hart didn’t set out to write a book about the legacy of misogyny at Nike (ironically, a company named after the Greek goddess of victory), it’s a theme threaded throughout the book’s narrative. Where there’s a group of rich, powerful, hyper-competitive, testosterone-worshipping men, there will probably be chauvinism. From its onset, Nike was a corporate embodiment of the “toxic masculinity” concept with a culture and structure that devalued, economically discriminated against, and abused women. Of course, that’s not just a Nike problem. Ultimately, Win At All Costs is an indictment of national ethos that glorifies domination and aggression, conflating the traits with greatness.
PodiumRunner spoke with author Matt Hart about the journalistic process of writing Win At All Costs, the NOP’s impact on American running culture, how Nike’s legacy of misogyny led to its downfall, and what he hopes athletes and coaches get out of the book.
Q&A Interview With Author Matt Hart
PodiumRunner: How did you become involved in reporting on the Nike Oregon Project’s doping violations?
Matt Hart: [Performance enhancing drugs and the sport of running] is a journalistic curiosity of mine to begin with, so I had written about it in the past. It’s a little tricky because the document that got me involved [a USB drive] is a hacked document, stolen from USADA. So I don’t disclose how I got my hands on it to keep the source a secret. Someone sent it to me because I write about this stuff.
I got the document and then began reporting to the New York Times on the topic and I wrote the piece for them and my curiosity was so piqued I just kept reporting and talking to more and more people. This story just started to open up and it was just so interesting. It’s a cautionary tale, but it’s also a love story and there’s betrayal and it just seemed to me that it would carry a book-length narrative.
PR: What was the most challenging part about writing this book?
Hart: The timeline was tight. I was reporting it as some of the more recent news was crashing around me. A lot of the news that happened, I had already reported and was holding onto to publish it with the book, of course, as you do. And then I’d see a New York Times headline or somewhere else that, you know, that bit of information had been reported by another journalist. So that was terribly troubling at first and then I just became okay with it. There was nothing I could do about it, I would have had to put the book aside and try to report, and the book was the priority.
Access is always difficult with Nike. If you talk to any other journalist that’s ever reported on them, they’re a closed loop. They do a lot of PR but they’re hard to deal with. So Nike was difficult.
Trying to tell the whole story truthfully, quite honestly, is going to upset some people. And I ran into that every now and then and that was hard to deal with. But, that’s part of the job and my responsibility was to the narrative and the truth.
PR: Were you intimidated by muckraking Nike? In the book there are examples of Nike executives going so far as to issue death threats against people who called public attention to the use of PEDs by the Nike Oregon Project.
Hart: Yes and no. I spent a lot of time interviewing [Brooks Beast Head Coach] Danny Mackey. As you just mentioned, he was threatened by John Capriotti, the head of [track and field] sports marketing at Nike, and that’s just hard to fathom. It’s hard to understand how someone in his position would go out of his way to do that in a public place. What was more striking was how it affected Danny. He was frightened, he had been threatened, so he bought a gun, he started doing Jiu Jitsu. So when I really understood that, yes, I did take a couple breaths and think through this deeply and I got vaguely paranoid at times when weird things had happened with my technology.
Ultimately, I wasn’t ever really in fear. As I had to, I drove to Alberto Salazar’s house and I knocked on his front door to give him a chance to speak to the claims in the book. I went to the Nike campus and spent a week there trying to interview everyone and anyone so I sat and waited for Alberto’s son to come back from lunch one day and he’s an intimidating, strapping young man! And so yeah there were times when my heart was beating. He told me over email later to “never come back to my place of work.” Depending on how you read that over email that can sound vaguely threatening, or however you choose to take it. The scariest moment was taking a few deep breaths before I knocked on Alberto Salazar’s door, but he didn’t answer, his wife didn’t answer, the dog barked.
PR: There are quite a few instances in the book where you’re given contradicting information. How did you deal with that as a journalist?
Hart: That always happens if it’s a controversial topic. Despite my title, I tried to lean toward “here are the facts” and let the reader come to their own conclusions without explicitly telling them what to think because these are complicated topics and there’s always two sides to a story. On top of that, we’re dealing with grey area tactics, so I wanted to be fair to everyone involved. That’s why there’s that many instances, because I tried to present [both sides].
The one that comes to mind is the conversation between Pete Julian and Adam Goucher and they both had very different interpretations of that call [about whether Julian had Goucher’s support to accept a job working with the Nike Oregon Project]. So I just felt like, I just have to present them both. This is how Adam sees it, this is how Pete sees it. It’s the only fair thing to do.
There are instances journalistically where you start to figure out or you have an intuitive sense of “oh that’s not true” and then you try to corroborate [the dubious information] and you can’t corroborate it. So those I left out. In that instance [between Julian and Goucher] there wasn’t a long list of corroboration I could do because it was two people talking to each other, there was no one else involved. And so in those instances I just tried to let the reader decide what to believe.
PR: To get more into the content of the book, what has been the Nike Project’s impact on the world of professional running?
Hart: Early on, someone had mentioned that Alberto had coached the athletes to take their inhalers and breathe it out through the nose so that the corticosteroid steroids could get into the nose tissues as well. And I know athletes who are doing that based on the reporting early on on how Alberto was coaching his athletes.
At some point he had started to be called the most powerful coach in the sport, and I think that’s true. So he was trying all these different tactics and techniques to see what would work and at some level he was a king maker in the business of supplements and techniques. You know, the anti-gravity treadmill, without Alberto’s endorsement probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere. But he adopted it early, bought the first one on the Nike dime, put it in his garage, and showed that it was a valuable training technique. Now they’re in training facilities in colleges and PT offices.
The more nefarious bit is the prescription drugs being used to the benefit of the athletes’ performance. I think that’s why it spread, we even see it in cycling. Now it’s hard to say if it was the chicken or the egg, was cycling doing it first and then Alberto got word of it, or were they simultaneously moving away from explicit drug use to pharmaceuticals. It seems like it happened concurrently. As anti-doping tests get better, it’s the logical move to make if you have doctors on your team who can prescribe you things.
The aim of the Oregon Project early on in 2001 when it was founded was to bring American running back to prominence. And with Galen’s performance at the Olympics taking second place I think on some level he accomplished that. From then on there was more success [with other NOP athletes]. I think he did possibly turn the sport to at least consider using performance enhancing drugs. When you’re the top dog, everyone’s looking at what you’re doing. And the track and field world really did. And some of them would just turn around and then criticize him because it seemed outright ridiculous and there’s another percentage that turned around and got the same prescriptions or tried the same techniques.
PR: There’s a theme in the book of this messy grey area where the performance enhancing tactics being considered are not clearly right or wrong, do you think this is an area where the athletes themselves need to draw their own moral lines?
Hart: There is an unfortunate grey area and I don’t see that going away and even if it does get clearer, other things will fall into that grey area, whether it’s new supplements or new techniques. As Alberto showed, being Nike and being that big and prominent and wealthy, they would find out about supplements first, like the L-carnitine thing.
Ultimately, that falls on the athletes. We each have to draw that line somewhere, and if you look back on your career, will you feel somewhat disappointed or ashamed that you used prescription drugs to benefit your running? I think for most people the answer would be yes, they would be ashamed of that. So it ultimately falls on them, they’re responsible for what goes into their bodies.
Now, a powerful program and a powerful coach [like Salazar], you come to love him as a father, you come to trust him completely. How could there be anything wrong with this grandiose and iconic coach? I can see how the athletes would come to just wholeheartedly trust what he was trying to get them to do. And on some level a lot of the athletes did. As you read Dathan Ritzenhein, a lot of what comes up in the book starts to chafe against his own moral well being. There’s little red flags along the way for each athlete but it’s their decision to draw that line. Now, the rules are important, of course. What’s legal and what isn’t, and there were grey areas here that were definitely crossed, and that’s why Alberto [is serving] a ban rather than just being investigated and let go. So those lines are there, and the 50 milliliters [of L-carnitine] in 6 hours was one of them that he crossed.
So there’s lots of grey areas.
PR: The technology too, right? The Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% scandal, for example. They are legal, sure, but are they fair?
Hart: Well they weren’t legal at first! Nike’s ethos has always been to ask for forgiveness later. When they first started running in the shoe they painted the colors to look like a current model, so no one would call them on it. And that just shows that they knew that they were running in a shoe they probably shouldn’t have, that wasn’t available to the wider public, and it might have some performance enhancing benefits that they didn’t want to talk about quite yet. But look if we’re gonna stick to the rules, you’re exactly right. USATF just came down with a ruling. It can’t be higher than 40 millimeters and the shoe has to be out at least 4 months before the event. And those are clear rules, and now everyone’s got to play by them. But what happened when they first put the shoe out, it was a grey area. I mean, I would argue maybe it wasn’t. It was clearly against the spirit of the rules and they just got away with it.
PR: The book also details the history of misogyny in Nike’s company. How did that lead to NOP’s downfall and serious critique, more recently, of the company at large?
Hart: It is, as I think the book outlines, it’s sort of just a legacy of misogyny that ran rampant for years and was never dealt with. You know, kin recognizes kin and they would hire similarly aggressive executives throughout the years and it seems like they just amassed so many of them that that was the dominant culture.
But, corporations like Nike have thousands of so many good people who are conscious-minded, who care about things like this like the environment like women’s rights. They weren’t necessarily in positions of power. I think over time this is starting to change. Sometimes it takes a lawsuit and that’s what’s ongoing right now. You know, when I was reporting, there weren’t any women that had the ability or power to sign athletic contracts. So if you think about that, of course the athletic contract excludes pregnant women, or is prejudicially written so that if you get pregnant you can’t race and then they don’t have to pay you.
Maybe it made sense years ago when they were hiring mostly men, but they have to change with the times and it just seems like it has been exceedingly slow to change with the times. But at some point it becomes so painful for them whether it’s the public PR or their actual employees picketing on campus, which happened last December.
I was going to call [misogyny] out where it happened, but as I started reporting the book and talking to more people that just became such a dominant thread that it became a narrative aspect of the book. I had no intention of that, I had heard some of these stories, but once I dug in I’ll tell you there were some things I couldn’t corroborate that didn’t make the book that would make you angry, that made me angry. Some of [the sexism] is quite frankly, unbelievable and the more I researched the more those stories popped up.
PR: Salazar’s final appeal is next month. Why is this a risky move for him?
Hart: He opens himself up to being punished even more severely. [USADA CEO] Travis Tygart has told me, “We’re shooting for a lifetime ban for Alberto.” So he’s opening himself up to a worse ban than he’s already received. It sort of seems like its all-or-nothing for him. If he gets cleared, he can happily retire and claim it was all a witch hunt. Other things are ongoing, there’s still the Safesport [suspension], which has him on a preliminary ban.
There’s a very good chance that he could get the lifetime ban, and of course he could get off. And that doesn’t change my book at all. The facts are the facts. It will be interesting to see if they can pull that off. I mean, Nike has the best, high-power lawyers money can buy.
PR: If athletes and coaches take one lesson from this book, what do you want it to be?
Hart: It’s a cautionary tale for athletes and coaches. We can’t fix sport until we take an honest look at it. So that’s what the book is. It’s an honest look at what happened and what went wrong with the most powerful and well-funded running team in the world. That should provide signposts or buoys for coaches and athletes. They have to seriously consider grey area tactics, who they trust, who they let into their circle, who they are signing with. Alberto was under suspicion for so many years and Nike just kept pushing [athletes like] Jordan Hasay and Mary Cain, these promising American runners, to him. And, if you were to step back and take an honest look at what’s going on you might send them to another coach or have a third party do an investigation rather than an internal investigation.
If even just one athlete takes the story and it helps them make better decisions in their career, then that’s a success.
Parts of this interview have been redacted for editorial purposes.