When Does an Advantage Become Cheating?

Alberto Salazar hugs 5,000 meters runners Bernard Lagat and Galen Rupp at the 2011 IAAF World Championships.
Alberto Salazar hugs 5,000 meters runners Bernard Lagat and Galen Rupp at the 2011 IAAF World Championships.Jung Yeon-Je / Getty Images

Running is the simplest sport of all. The first guy to finish wins. While the basic rules of racing are easy enough for most contestants on The Bachelor to understand, its doping rules and politics aren't as clear-cut, which is precisely why Nike's legendary Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar has the ethics police giving him the stop-and-frisk treatment.

This week, Salazar admitted to injecting runners with something called L-carnitine, a substance that may or may not enhance the performance of athletes by inhibiting the production of lactic acid, a primary cause of fatigue. It is naturally produced by the body, but is prescribed as a nutritional supplement to premature infants and AIDS patients.

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L-carnitine also gives athletes an energy boost, which could be very useful to Olympic distances runners like Mo Farah and Galen Rupp, who Salazar proudly trains. Its effects are believed to be minimal, but, for purists, the idea of injecting anything at all into your body that gives you a competitive advantage may not sit right. However, taking this particular substance, either orally or with a needle, appears to be well within the rules of the sport.

It's nowhere near powerful enough to be found in the Barry Bonds aisle of the drug store, and the supplement isn't banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, so Salazar is in the clear (for now). Everything he's done up to this point is technically legal, and mostly ethical. But according to a Sunday Times story, Salazar told his runners precisely how to use the supplement within the parameters of the sport and how to answer pesky drug screeners.

The bigger issue is that Salazar, who won the New York City and Boston Marathons in the 1980s, has been denying all of this for a long time. He's been dogged by rumors of training doped-up athletes for years. Last year, he was actually quoted at length in a Telegraph article, claiming that, "None of our athletes are on any sports-specific supplement other than beta alanine, which is an amino acid. Other than that, it's iron, vitamin D, and that's it," he explained. "You don't really need anything else."

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Looking foolish isn't in the same league as cheating, but Salazar's foes — and there are a few of them — must be delighting in this. The Oregon Project is a team of Nike-sponsored runners that the famous coach is tasked with molding into super-athletes. Recruited at a young age, they train in Portland and live in a house that has filters to thin the air to simulate living in the mountains in an effort to produce American runners on par with athletes from traditional powers like Kenya. As far back as 2002, the high-house concept was challenged by the United States Anti-Doping Agency for the artificial edge it provided. The house was originally banned by the agency, but then later allowed.

So while the idea of a running race may be simple, the big business behind getting athletes across the finish line has many twists and turns. Especially for Nike, a brand that seems to be toeing the ethical line as close as possible these days.

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