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Nike risks being burned by doping scandal

Citing experiments with testosterone, fat-burning amino acid injections and falsified medical documents, the American anti-doping authority USADA published a list of blemishes on the record of the highest-profile track and field coach in the world, Alberto Salazar.

FILE: In this file photo taken on 21 August 2015 Cuban-American coach Alberto Salazar attends a practice session ahead of the 2015 IAAF World Championships at the "Bird's Nest" National Stadium in Beijing. Picture: AFP

NEW YORK - With Nike-backed athletics coach Alberto Salazar subjected to a four-year suspension for doping, the US sportswear giant risks being caught up in the scandal - its CEO is even quoted in the suspension ruling.

Citing experiments with testosterone, fat-burning amino acid injections and falsified medical documents, the American anti-doping authority USADA published a list of blemishes on the record of the highest-profile track and field coach in the world.

In that document - prepared by an independent panel for USADA - was none other than Mark Parker, the CEO of Nike, which has backed Salazar for decades.

Parker was copied on several emails about research done by Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project (NOP), a group created in 2001 by the three-time New York Marathon winner to promote elite long-distance running in the US.

The alleged enhancing program was for athletes competing at 5,000 meters, 10,000m but not for sprint races, according to the agency.

In a 2011 email to Parker, Salazar explains he had given one of the NOP coaches a test injection of a liter of an amino acid and dextrose (glucose) mixture - a dose clearly above what would be allowed under World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) regulations.

And in another email to Parker two years later, Jeffrey Brown, a doctor who worked with the NOP, described experiments with testosterone gel.

Parker responded to Brown, "It will be interesting to determine the minimal amount of topical male hormone required to create a positive test."

Nike has not responded to requests for comment by AFP. A spokesman for the brand told the Wall Street Journal, "Mark Parker had no reason to believe that the test was outside any rules as a medical doctor was involved."

These tests were ostensibly carried out in response to Salazar's concern that an athlete might be sabotaged by someone secretly contaminating them with the gel.

"Mark’s understanding was that Alberto was attempting to prevent doping of his athletes," the Nike spokesman told the WSJ.

Salazar's best-known athlete is Britain's Mo Farah, who won four gold medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics at 5,000m and 10,000m. Farah has never tested positive and said in response to Salazar's ban he had left the NOP in 2017 and that he has "no tolerance for anyone who breaks the rules or crosses the line".

'SWOOSHES IN TIMEBOMBS'

Nike stock fell 1.75% Tuesday, minimally more than the overall market movement (-1.28 percent), the day after the company closed the session on the highest price in its history.

The brand has posted glowing results for several quarters, bolstered by its reorientation towards online sales and its performance on the Chinese market.

Could the Salazar slam the brakes on Nike's upward movement?

"Nike’s history is full of supporting dopers, of doped federations," former runner Lauren Fleshman, who was sponsored by Nike for more than nine years until 2012, said on Twitter Tuesday.

"They look the other way even when it’s clear to everyone else that something is rotten," she said.

"They put swooshes on the timebombs. And when they blow, Nike is often the last to leave."

Nike continued to officially support cyclist Lance Armstrong in 2012 immediately after the publication of USADA's report showing damning evidence of doping against him and his team - before dropping him a few days later.

In June 2016, Nike maintained its contract with tennis player Maria Sharapova, who was suspended for two years for doping.

The clothing brand also stood by basketball player Kobe Bryant, who was accused of rape in 2003, and golfer Tiger Woods, who was involved in an adultery scandal in 2009.

In the world of athletics, it has stood by US sprinter Justin Gatlin, who served a ban for doping before returning to win world titles.

In September 2018, Nike made waves when it released an advertising campaign featuring US football player and activist Colin Kaepernick, criticised for kneeling during the US national anthem at games in protest at racism.

"Nike is having a public reckoning right now," tweeted Fleshman, who competed at 5,000m in three world championships.

She also recealled that Nike was revealed to have been penalising pregnant athletes, a policy it revised in May after coming under pressure from track veteran and new mother Allyson Felix.

And she criticised their ads, including one featuring Serena Williams and other female athletes in light of the recent scandal.

"If you make ads about moms kicking ass but you suspend pregnant women without pay while preventing them from making money elsewhere - if you make ads about the purity of sport while funding the underbelly that erodes it - that's a problem."

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