Track & Field

Estwanik voices concerns after Salazar scandal

  • Pushed the limits: top athletics Alberto Salazar, who worked briefly with local runner Chris Estwanik, received a four-year ban for multiple anti-doping rule violations

File photograph by Kin Cheung/AP

Chris Estwanik is fearful for the future of athletics, stating “you don’t know what to believe any more”, in the wake of the Alberto Salazar drug scandal.

Amid the fanfare of the World Championships taking place in Doha, Qatar, shocking news emerged of athletics coach Salazar being handed a four-year ban by the United States Anti-Doping Agency for “multiple anti-doping rule violations”, after a four-year investigation.

The head coach of the Nike Oregon Project [NOP], the prolific long-distance running group that has produced some of the world’s best athletes, including four-times Olympic gold medal-winner Mo Farah, was ruled to have trafficked testosterone, tampered with the doping control process, and administered a banned intravenous infusion, alongside Jeffrey Brown, a consultant doctor for the NOP.

Estwanik, a multiple Bermuda Day Half-Marathon Derby winner, briefly worked with Salazar when he was a member of the Nike team in California in the early 2000s and has been left questioning the future of athletics, comparing the damage of such scandals to that seen in cycling, which has seen its reputation shattered by scandals, most notably that of former Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong.

“When I was running for Nike, our group was based in California and his group was based in Oregon. Ashley [Couper] and I did some pace setting for his athletes,” Estwanik said.

“Across athletics where everyone is chasing world records, wanting to run the fastest, lift the most, jump the highest, there is science that allows coaches and athletes to push the envelope.

“It’s fair to say the way Alberto trained as an athlete and as a coach, he utilised everything at his disposal to optimise performance.

“That isn’t me saying there’s concrete evidence of wrongdoing or lines being crossed, but he would certainly utilise the tools available and push the limits as much as possible.

“In his mind, there could have been no wrongdoing on his part, but it has been found to be illegal within the rules of the governing bodies.

“Alberto obviously has the right to appeal and prove his innocence, but for them to ban him, there must be something; it’s a smoking gun.

“Whatever the outcome, it is certainly a worrying time for athletics and it looks like it is going down the same route as cycling.

“As an athletics fan, it makes you question everything; you don’t know what to believe any more.”

Such questions have already arisen surrounding a number of athletes associated with Salazar who competed at the World Championships, including two gold medal-winners, Donavan Brazier in the 800 and 1,500 metres winner Sifan Hassan.

Estwanik reflected on the damage of the scandal on the athletes’ achievements, while also highlighting the issues surrounding the controversial men’s 100 final in which Christian Coleman beat fellow American Justin Gatlin. Coleman came into the championships with a possible ban hanging over him, while 38-year-old Gatlin has served multiple bans for doping violations.

“We have seen a number of athletes who worked under Alberto win gold medals at the World Championships and, with what is happening, that is really worrying; it certainly raises questions,” Estwanik added.

“A lot of improvements will be down to modern science and improvement in training methods, but there will certainly be question marks against the accomplishments of those athletes.

“Usain Bolt left a void for someone to take over the baton in the 100, but the top two guys, one has been banned and the other was facing a ban; that’s wrong in itself.

“Justin Gatlin is 38 and still one of the fastest guys about.

“I respect his longevity in the sport and the hard work it takes to stay at the top for 20-odd years, but at that age you have to wonder how he has remained competitive.”

Salazar’s most decorated champion, Farah, who trained with the coach from 2011 until 2017 and was cleared to continue his association by UK Athletics, moved quickly to distance himself from the Cuban-born coach.

Estwanik believes testimony from former athletes such as Farah and key whistleblower in the case American Kara Goucher, who trained under Salazar between 2004 and 2011, further adds weight behind the argument of the ban being handed down.

“Mo Farah obviously worked very closely with Alberto and certain things happened that made him turn against him and separate himself from Alberto,” Estwanik said.

“We are also seeing a number of his other athletes do the same and so there has to be questions into what happened and if the line had started to be crossed for his athletes not to agree with him.

“There has been a lot of talk about Therapeutic Use Exemption and that a significant amount of his athletes were prescribed a certain type of asthma inhaler. It’s a really sad case. He was highly respected, but there was always a mystique about him. If it is found that he has done wrong, you wonder what drives people to that point of cheating.”

Whatever the outcome of the ongoing appeal, Estwanik reiterated his fear for the future of the sport, which is still recovering from the aftermath of the Russia drug scandal, with a report in 2016 finding the nation operated a state-sponsored doping programme for four years across the vast majority of Olympic sports.

“The hardest part of track and field is policing the drug elements.

“It costs more money to police it then the money it produces,” said Estwanik.

“The temptation is there for every athlete, but they have to take ownership of their body.

“Obviously, athletes can feel pressured, but at the end of the day, it is the athletes responsibility as to what goes in their body.

“Whatever happens, when you look at this and the case with Russia, it is definitely a worrying time for the sport going forward.”