While football and FIFA have grabbed most of the world headlines in recent weeks when it comes to shonky sports administration, there has been another story bubbling away which is also big, also worrying, and yet another example where a sponsor has so far been left wanting.
I refer to the reports around US track coach Alberto Salazar who is alleged to have violated anti-doping rules as part of his work at the Nike-funded Oregon Project.
Let me first say that I think the concept of the Oregon Project is fantastic. Through it, not only are Nike saying to their athletes and teams that they’re willing to give them money in exchange for product placement and endorsement, but they’re also willing to help improve their performance by funding elite facilities and expertise. It’s to be lauded as ‘best practice’ in sports partnerships, and it’s something that I would love to do with SKINS one day.
Nike has so far done what other sponsors do when faced with serious allegations swirling around: they’ve resorted to – and I paraphrase – ‘we’ll respond when you’ve got real evidence, not to rumours.’ This is despite the fact that ProPublica reports that there are up to 17 people who have talked to them and the BBC about “what they feel was inappropriate prescription drug use orchestrated by Salazar.”
If my experience to date in cycling and in football has taught me anything, whistleblowers generally tell the truth – and, if publicly, much to their detriment – and so-called ‘rumours’ are generally more accurate than not.
Alberto Salazar has protested his innocence, and has also reportedly assured one of his current star athletes, Mo Farah, that the reports are not true. Salazar has also informed Farah that, contrary to reports, he was not coach of runner Mary Decker Slaney when she was found guilty of a doping offence in 1996, despite suggestions to the contrary.
Why doesn’t Nike want to talk about it?
Nike’s Salazar response reminds me of the Lance Armstrong situation. USADA stripped Lance of his titles on 24 August 2012. They handed down their reasoned decision on the case on 10 October 2012. But it took until 18th October for any of the sponsors – including Nike – to do anything. I would argue that most reasonable people and companies would have had a red flag raised back in August, and at least got on the front foot and started asking questions.
It says a lot about the big corporates in the sporting world that all the sponsors did something on the same day, rather than one of them having the guts to take the lead. I think this is what is so worrying now about this latest situation. You think Nike might have learned a lesson from their Lance Armstrong experience.
Regardless of the fact that they’re invested millions in an athlete or, in this case, the Oregon Project and Salazar, it’s not good enough to sit passively by and wait to see what happens.
If Nike values and lives up to the true values of sport, they should be setting the pace and leading by example. Why not make a powerful statement that says?
‘Doping is not what we stand for. We don’t like this slur on our facility, our athletes or our brand. We want to get to the bottom of it as much as anyone, and we’re going to appoint an independent investigator to do so.’
It’s a matter of folklore that the Nike company was founded on the basis of a handshake between two business partners that is said to symbolize the way Nike conducts its business – “with integrity and a commitment to the highest ethical standards.”
These allegations against Salazar and the Oregon Project are an opportunity to do just that.
Nike might be hurt in the hip pocket by the outcome if the charges against Salazar are proven. There might be a hiccup in the smooth operation of their wonderful Oregon Project.
But if Nike and Salazar are right and these are merely rumours, they have nothing to lose. And if the allegations are proven, Nike has everything to gain by demonstrating their willingness to stand by their own code of ethics.
Hey Nike – Just do it.