Editor’s Note: I was contemplating putting together an editorial on the weekend’s events regarding Salazar and the USATF but then thought it’d be far more interesting to let someone else do it. Someone else who has written a whole lot about it and has been in touch with many of the key players. That person is Jon Gugala, and you’ll find links to his various other pieces throughout his editorial. It’s a controversial subject that has sparked passionate debate, and we welcome you to share your thoughts in the comments below.
by Jon Gugala
So Alberto Salazar finally responded to my emails!
Over the weekend, from multiple accounts, the Nike Oregon Project coach was running around the 2014 USA Indoor Championships in Albuquerque, N.M., swearing near children and at spouses, coaches, and Lost Boys of Sudan. And each day, before I reported on these stories that paint the picture of a new low for a coach with a long history of striking out at critics like a stepped-on snake, I’ve trotted out my own form email to Salazar, something that sounds more tired each time I write it: “Hey. Buddy. What do you say about this?”
You could read the stories that I reported over the weekend and mistakenly conclude I’m trying to smear one of the best coaches, knowledge-wise, in the U.S. And I’ve worried about that, too, going through plenty of introspection on the subject.
What I’ve come up with? Nah.
Not to say I don’t have hesitations. The most recent was yesterday. Twitter has been a constant source of activity over the weekend, and many people have followed me as these stories have developed. One of those, Maria Salazar, sounded familiar, and sure enough, it’s Salazar’s daughter.
Now I’m not saying that Salazar, with no personal account himself, has sent his daughter on Twitter Watch 2014 to monitor me and others who have added unflattering angles to the story arc of the weekend.
But I wouldn’t put it past him.
So after I’d interviewed a Lost Boy and both of the weekend’s DQs, I threw my Hail Mary. I had followed Maria Salazar, a ”Hey, I see you, too.” And since we both followed each other, I could send her a direct message.
It was, verbatim, “Could we speak over the phone? It would be off the record.”
At the time, I felt kind of guilty about it. Not that it was crossing ethical boundaries. Hers would be an interesting angle on the events of the weekend. But maybe contacting Salazar’s daughter was crossing my own moral boundaries. I mean, jeez, is nothing sacred? The guy’s obviously under a lot of stress, and now you’re reaching out to his family for comment?
Well, I don’t feel so bad about it anymore, especially since he’s already deployed his progeny on PR cleanup. Alex Salazar, whom I believe to be Alberto’s son, emailed LetsRun.com from a Nike email address about a story I wrote for them about a meeting between Alberto and Justin Grunewald, the spouse of the U.S. 3000-meters champion Gabe Grunewald who Alberto may have pulled strings to disqualify, in an elevator in the host hotel Marriott. In that email to LRC that only shows a rudimentary grasp on written English, Alex tries to refute that his father ever told Grunewald to “Get the f— out of my face.”
“I just ask you report the truth, not 2nd and 3rd hand stories that are tweeted and emailed to you by biased parties,” writes Alex Salazar, a Nike employee who was not in the elevator with Grunewald and Alberto (and is himself recounting what his father, days later, told him).
Well, within an hour of my DM to Maria, an editor from one of the websites I wrote for over the weekend contacted me, saying Salazar had called him asking why I was harassing his daughter. Despite my misgivings and my ability as a human to “take the role of the other,” I don’t regret it. I don’t regret offering the opportunity for adults, both Salazar and his daughter (and this morning, his son, Alex), to speak on their behalf and put out their viewpoint. I’ve been doing it all weekend, and Salazar’s been mum to not only me but even the Wall Street Journal, only speaking briefly and in a limited capacity to Ken Goe of the Oregonian.
I have been open about my own relationship with Salazar, about the 6 a.m. phone call I received after a story I wrote that wasn’t even about him referred to his tech-centric approach as “gimmicks”. In the spring of 2012, after another story I wrote that wasn’t even about him ran on Runner’s World, he wrote that same editor (note: these are two completely different publications now) to harp on the “gimmicks” comment again, how I’m obviously biased against him because I don’t jump on Chris Solinsky for using an AlterG to rehab his hamstring after it had pretty much ripped off from his pelvis.
So back then, 2012, I reached out to Salazar. “Hey. Buddy. Let’s hear your side.”
Paraphrased (not so loosely, since you don’t forget the ego dripping from these words), Salazar said he had no interest in he or any of his athletes speaking to me or any of my readers. And then a few months later, at the 2012 Stanford Invite, where Dathan Ritzenhein was mounting a comeback, after sitting down for a confirmed interview with me for Competitor Magazine, he backed out, saying he didn’t want to get mixed up in whatever was between me and his coach, Alberto Salazar.
Think what that means: an athlete actually turns down free PR in one of the most critical times in his career (keep in mind, this was an Olympic year) to please his coach. You are falling on your own sword for your coach. And that is why so many people are distrustful of Salazar and his athletes: the power.
Now, despite this history with Salazar, I still like the guy. In a world so fully lacking individuals with passion, who doesn’t admire someone so obsessed to be excellent at his chosen profession? I respect him for that.
The problem is not Salazar’s myopathy for his athletes’ success. The problem is that myopathy paired with too much power.
Because then, when you submit protests in consecutive races at a national championship that lead to rival teams’ athletes disqualified, and when USATF policy appears circumvented in pursuit of this end, then the worst-case scenario is realized.
USATF, in a statement for the reinstatement of Grunewald as national champ, said the initial DQ came from “enlarged, digital footage of the legs and feet of both athletes.” And that would be a fine excuse if you have no reading comprehension whatsoever. Here’s a question: Where did the footage come from? Was it new, or was it the same footage they’d already looked at? If it was new, who took it? If it was an enlargement, does that constitute new evidence, a requisite to reopen the case, after it was already ruled by the head official and then a three-person committee that there was no infraction? Did Salazar exert undue pressure on officials, whether with Nike’s tacit or explicit support, to get this case reopened (what Team USA Minn. coach Dennis Barker described to me as “hovering” after Salazar’s initial protest failed)?
And furthermore, if Salazar is only an “advocate for my athlete,” as he says, then was it Jordan Hasay withdrawing her protest or Salazar, the latter of whom filed it? Does ownership of said protest transfer to Hasay once Salazar files it? Did Hasay actually want to protest in the first place, or was it just Salazar knee-jerking before going on to an alleged verbal assault of at least one coach and one athlete?
If these seem like a lot of questions regarding something that’s supposed to provide those answers, I’ll say it’s a shame the USATF statement isn’t in print. At least then it would have a practical purpose the next time I step in dog shit.
God, Salazar, everyone already thought you were an asshole, but thanks to a new horizon of your asshole-ishness this weekend that everyone saw, you have good reason to keep your dumb trap shut. Just don’t send your kids after me, if they are so sacred to warrant a phone call to an editor after ignoring my emails.
That editor asked me, maybe too honestly, “Do you still want relationships with these people [i.e. Salazar] after this is all over?”
Sure. Yes. But not in this same context, where all us journalists are bugs waiting for Salazar to drop a crumb of access to his stable of the leading track and field athletes in the world. Nope. I’m fine with this relationship, as it stands, to end so that something else can develop in its place.
In the meantime, I’ll just write about everyone else.
Over the course of the weekend, I have received so much support by the running community. Acquaintances higher up in the food chain have reached out in encouragement. They are amazed that even one person can speak out, or empower others’ voices to speak out, against a coach that has wielded his power and influence like a bludgeon. Nike employees. Coaches. Athletes. Former athletes of Salazar’s. Media, from running blogs all the way to publications that cover Big Four sports.
They are all united by a love of the sport of running, and their collective voice has moved a governing body to quit dicking around with athletes’ careers. It’s their collective voice, not just mine, that has decried Alberto Salazar because, like that Kanye West song, no one man should have all that power.