A tick in all the wrong boxes

Nike Lead

Nike once had the wellbeing of athletics at its very core, but in the name of profits they now not only look past cheating, but some suggest they are a big part of it, writes Ewan MacKenna.

Meander through the Nike website and you’ll land on their mission statement. “Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world,” it reads. But it’s a sentiment that could be viewed rather differently than intended when you delve into a company that has long seen profits replace passion, leaving questionable processes and odious personnel to move it to the very forefront of anti-sporting ideals. That’s quite an about-turn given origins where the athlete wasn’t just behind their core value but essentially was that value.

A brief history lesson: in the 1950s, Oregon coach Bill Bowerman was on a quest to create more durable and lighter running shoes, a motive that saw him provide future Olympic champion Otis Davis with what were described as a pair that were too tight, offered no support and were taken straight from a waffle iron. Undeterred, by the ’60s Bowerman was over Phil Knight who was looking for a way to make a living without quitting his passion. It was a relationship that saw the two become distributors for Asics out of the back of a car before the growth of what we now know as Nike.

On the surface, it’s the wholesome rags-to-riches rise both blue- and white-collar Americans revel in. Tug at a lace or two though and the dream quickly unravels.

Given the secrecy of a company whose headquarters are sometimes referred to as Fort Knox West, it’s hard to judge when it started to go morally wrong as Nike didn’t just forget about the honest athlete but have been making their lives harder (even if some don’t know it and more like Paula Radcliffe and Mo Farah won’t admit it). However, by the time a 24-year-old runner Jeff Drenth dropped dead in the offices of Athletics West in 1986 after a workout, rot had set in.

Knight

Bowerman had been behind the popularisation of jogging in the 1970s but while it grew as a pastime, he and Knight saw a lack of structure for professional athletes and pushed Nike profits into the Athletics West project. Essentially an all-star club that could double as a marketing tool, there have always been whispers of drug abuse that were particularly audible in the book ‘Swoosh – The Story of Nike and the Men Who Played There’. Co-written by Julie Strasser, Nike’s first advertising director and wife to Robert, the marketing genius behind the company’s rise, she quotes insurance records detailing testosterone and liver function tests undertaken by its athletes to study the physiological effects of steroids. Questions remain over the cause of Drenth’s death but shortly after came a rapid dismantling of Athletics West who along with Nike have always denied all of the above.

Yet some who’ve worked within the company have pointed to that being a crossroads moment. And, according to sources, Nike made a clear call on direction that leads us to a present where the keystone in all of this is John Capriotti, Global Director of Athletics Sports Marketing. He’s a man who directly and indirectly has links to almost every major doping scandal of recent years. Not only this, but those connections aren’t exactly blurred or barbed.

Capriotti had been a coach at Kansas State under Steve Miller but the latter left to take up the position of Director of Athletics at Nike in June 1991. Capriotti’s exit from the university was less graceful as he broke NCAA rules when paying a minimum of 12 athletes a combined total of at least $10,000. He claimed the money was to help students in need but others suggest the money was from his former K-State colleague and used to gain marketing favour. After an embarrassing end which saw Capriotti resign on 1 November, 1992, he quickly became a promotional rep at Nike. Ever since, he’s climbed the power ladder and at the top, the company he keeps hurts track and field far more than it could ever hurt Nike.

A couple of weeks back, Panorama ran a damning investigation into the Nike Oregon Project. Run by coach John Salazar (who was a star at Athletics West) and financed by Nike, investigative journalist Mark Daly provided enough evidence about the modern-day version of the all-star club to greatly disturb the World Anti-Doping Agency. Amongst the information were records that Galen Rupp – the golden child that Salazar coached from high school to an unprecedented silver medal in the 10,000m in London in 2012 – had been on testosterone at 16. It also became clear Nike had this information as files delivered to Salazar by the company itself were leaked, showing a spike in Rupp’s levels at the time.

Salazar Rupp

There was so much more regarding the practices of Salazar, the project and Nike. Teammates of Rupp confirmed they’d heard and seen usage. John Stiner, once a massage therapist with Nike Oregon, recalled being asked to bring back a tube of AndroGel (testosterone) from an altitude training camp in 2008, adding that he was told by Salazar not to get the wrong idea and was later informed it was for Salazar’s heart condition when medics say it would never be prescribed for that; stories were unearthed of how Salazar asked his own son to go for tests trying to figure out how much testosterone would trigger a positive; athletes spoke of how he promised to keep them in “the normal range” in what amounted to micro-doping or clever cheating; US Olympian Kara Gouchter even produced a bottle of a thyroid drug with Salazar’s hand-writing that she said wasn’t prescribed.

Of course Nike and Salazar have denied all of it, but this is a coach that denied any wrongdoing when with Mary Decker as she tested positive for testosterone too, a month after he noted she was better poised than ever to win an Olympic medal in 1996. His and Nike’s latest response was again box-tickingly bland, but another quote from Salazar is worth keeping in mind. In 1999 he said at a conference: “It is difficult to be in top five in the world in any of the distance events without using EPO or human growth hormone… I can definitely understand how a good moral person might be compelled to do so [cheat].” After all that, Nike continue to offer their full support to both man and project.

That might seem surprising to those on the outside, even for a company that didn’t sever relations with Lance Armstrong until six days after a 1,000-page dossier emerged proving his cheating, even for a company that is known to be the international sportswear giant implicated in the Fifa scandal, and even for a company that gave quarterback Michael Vick a four-year sponsorship deal after he was released from prison for hanging, drowning and electrocuting canines used in his dog-fighting ring. But for those in track and field, the familiar can’t surprise and there have been tales of Nike’s lack of morals for some time now.

Under Capriotti’s watch, he described Trevor Graham as earning the respect of Nike when presenting him with coach of the year, months before a life-ban for drugging athletes. Almost all the competitors involved in the Balco scandal were under Nike sponsorship. Coaches in America close to Nike over recent years include Salazar, doper Dennis Mitchell and controversial (at best) sprint guru John Smith. And it goes far beyond the States.

Lance

Bahrain’s Rashid Ramzi who was stripped of his 2008 Olympic 1,500m gold was on their books. The recent east African doping scandals have strong links too, led by marathon star and EPO cheat Rita Jeptoo who had a huge sponsorship deal while Mathew Kisorio and Jemima Sumgong were also contracted. Indeed many of the Africans caught out are managed by Dutchman Jos Hermens who is a former Nike employee and maintains close links with the sportswear giant.

What’s almost as disturbing though is that Nike don’t even make much of an effort to hide any of this. In 2011, convicted drug trafficker and disgraced coach and agent Mark Block was given a 10-year ban from the sport yet a year later he turned up at the US Olympic trials in Nike’s SkyBox as what a source has said was a guest of Capriotti. Nike say this is untrue and that gaining entry is an informal process. In other words he just wandered in the VIP suite of one of the most security-conscious companies on earth on one of their biggest days.

Yet Nike have still had opportunities to show themselves in a different light, only that didn’t pay. Earlier this year, 41-year-old mother-of-two and European 10,000-metre champion Jo Pavey was Nike contracted but despite her success and strong voice in pushing for clean athletics, she was dropped by the label. Shortly after, Nike threw their cash behind Justin Gatlin, a sprinter twice banned for doping and who has never shown remorse.

It was a series of moves that perfectly illustrated what the company represents as those in the know say there’s no smoke without fire. But fumes from Nike are so thick that most in track and field are suffocating, long before they can get anywhere near the flames that are burning the sport alive.

Sunday Business Post
28 June, 2015

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4 comments

  1. Ewan, great article. I won the first professional road race sponsored by Nike in June 1981. I immediately received a lifetime ban under international amateur rules ! which lasted 18 months when USAT&F set up a new system allowing us to earn prizemoney . That stand by me and others launched Nike into the bigger world of the Olympics etc. I was with Nike 11 years. I am a native New Zealander so never earned the “big bucks” but appreciated their support. Those of us in the endurance side of the sport know the cheats! I called Lance out after his first Tour win. When you see the physical changes in your competitors you know! We know what it takes physically to maintain the hard training . Track and Field has been destroyed by all these cheats but I can also say having competed against all the Eastern bloc women in 1976 it’s been going on for a long time! greed wins! http://www.anneaudain.com

    1. Hey Anne, absolutely lovely to hear from you and well aware of your own fine career. Reassuring in terms of my own stance to know people as prominent as yourself feel similar and it gives some hope to the sport that people like yourself are willing to be honest about the past and the present for the sake of the future.

  2. Thanks a lot, Nike is a very important explanation factor to why athletics / T&F is in such a bad situation. John Caprioti has bad moral standards. That in combination with a position with power is always very bad. Again, thanks for writing…

  3. Another great article, Ewan — I hope other sportswriters and commenters will speak up about the obvious drug cheats rampant in sports.

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