Inside a secret running program at Nike and a win-at-all-costs corporate culture

A new book offers an explosive behind-the-scenes look at the rise and fall of the "Nike Oregon Project."
October 6, 2020, 4:00 AM UTC
Win At All Costs-Book Cover
Courtesy of Dey Street Books

In late 2019, more than 400 Nike employees decided that rather than head to their desks on a brisk December morning, that they would instead take up signs and picket their own employer. In place of torches and pitchforks, however, the campus workforce held signs that read, “Just Do Better,” “We Believe Mary,” and “Empower Women.” 

A recent lawsuit had laid bare the reality of the upper management at the company, a boys-only club of powerful and arrogant men with outsize egos in an echelon that even the most competent and talented of women had trouble reaching. In the previous year it had also come to light that the company’s athletic contracts allowed it to stop paying pregnant female athletes on technicalities. Olympians and former professional Nike runners like Kara Goucher and Alysia Montaño had begun speaking freely to the press about their treatment while under contract with the world’s largest and most powerful sports brand.

But what mobilized the rank and file on this day was the reopening of a newly renovated office building dedicated to Nike employee, Alberto Salazar, a firebrand of a coach who had recently been given a four-year doping ban from the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Shortly after the ruling was announced, Sept. 30, 2019, a former professional Nike runner named Mary Cain came forward in a New York Times piece titled, “I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike,” and claimed that Salazar had abused her. “I got caught in a system designed by and for men,” she said in the short video feature, “which destroys the bodies of young girls.” 

Now, Nike had a homegrown revolt on its hands. 

This is the story of the rise and fall of Nike’s Oregon Project, and how Nike’s aggressive win-at-all-costs ethos drove the team to gray area tactics and outright cheating, which resulted in a shuttering of the program, doping bans, and a lasting stain on some of the world’s most famous runners.

Below is an excerpt from my book Win at All Costs: Inside Nike Running and Its Culture of Deception (Dey Street HarperCollins), available Oct. 6.

Author Matt Hart
Courtesy of Dey Street/HarperCollins

On Aug. 4, 2012, 29 men from 18 different countries lined up in northeast London to find out who could run 6.2 miles—the 10,000-meter Olympic event—the fastest. Among them was Ethiopian legend Kenenisa Bekele, who owned the Olympic record for the distance at 27 minutes and 1.17 seconds and the world record of 26 minutes and 17.53 seconds, and had won the previous two Olympic gold medals in the event. Add this to his four World Championships in the 10,000 meters and it was clear to see why the British television broadcasters, in their preamble to the event, called Kenenisa “the world’s greatest distance runner.” The race, however, was anything but a foregone conclusion: It was a stacked field of the fastest men in the world. Kenenisa’s younger brother, Tariku Bekele, was a favorite, as was the world half-marathon champion, Kenyan Wilson Kiprop. Kiprop had run the fastest 10,000 meters of the year in front of Oregon track fanatics at the University’s famed Hayward field during the 2012 Prefontaine Classic, which hosted the East African Countries Trials.

The XXX Olympiad of 2012 was London’s third time hosting the modern Olympic Games since the ancient games were revived by Pierre de Coubertin in 1896. The United Kingdom spent an estimated $15 billion to stage these Games including $775 million on the new stadium the men were now lined up in. London’s first time hosting an Olympics, in 1908, saw approximately 2,000 athletes—though only 37 women—compete for 110 gold medals. The Games of 2012 would involve some 10,500 athletes—with women now representing almost half the field—competing in 302 events.

Nike had several athletes racing, but the distribution of its largesse had focused mostly on its two most prominent Oregon Project runners, Galen Rupp and Mo Farah, from whom they were expecting great things. The men had been training together under the diligent eye of Alberto Salazar, a former Nike athlete and American record holder in the 10,000 meters. Salazar had been working with Rupp, who was now 26, since before he could legally drive and had grown to love him like a son. After a somewhat lackluster beginning to his professional running career, Farah and his family moved to Oregon early in 2011 to join the secretive Nike program based at the Beaverton world headquarters. He was still under contract with Adidas when he arrived, contractually obligated to wear the three stripes while training—an unheard-of breach of etiquette on the insular campus and a sin for which Farah was forced to endure stares of disdain from campus employees, until Salazar got word out that it was okayed at the highest levels. Farah had great reverence for his new coach, and the pair enjoyed an almost instant leveling up in the athlete’s performance.

Eleven years into its tenure and untold millions invested, the Oregon Project had not produced to a commensurate level of expectation, or expense. An American athlete hadn’t earned a medal of any color in the 10,000 meters since the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan—22 years before Rupp was born. A European runner hadn’t won the event since 1984, and an Englishman never had. Today would change all of that.

The race plan for Farah and Rupp was simple. Stay near the front of the pack, Salazar had explained to them before the start. If anyone makes a move to pull away, cover the distance and put yourself in a position for a final-burst victory. “We felt they could out-sprint anyone in the race, we didn’t care if it was a fast pace, a slow pace, whatever,” said Salazar, after the event. “They wouldn’t be trying to win it until the last 400, maybe even the last 200 meters.”

As the network cameras panned past the athletes on the start line, Rupp, wearing a long gold chain, a red Nike USA singlet, and shorts pulled up high, kissed his wedding ring. As they stopped on Farah—who, despite now being a Nike athlete, was required by United Kingdom Athletics to wear the Adidas sponsored jersey of Great Britain—held his palms up behind his ears, as a way of saying Let’s hear it! to the crowd. The Somali-born athlete moved to England as an 8-year-old and considers himself British. The London crowd responded with deafening enthusiasm. Buoyed, Farah blew the audience a kiss, raised his arms, and started jumping  up and down in place to keep the crowd going and warm up his legs. Then he brought his palms down over his face and, with a big exhale, cleared his expression back to all-business, as an actor might do to prepare himself for the drama ahead.

In professional running there are two events that matter more than all the others combined. The Olympics is the premier affair. A distant second, but still the third-largest sporting event in the world, is the International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships. The Olympics take place every four years, with the World Championship alternating every other year, on the odd year, since 1991.

Winning an Olympic medal, then, as now, comes with no prize money from race organizers; instead many countries’ national sports federations provide the financial incentives. And they vary widely among countries. An athlete representing the United States of America in the 2018 Winter Olympics, for instance, would have received $37,500 for a gold medal, $22,500 for silver, and $15,000 for bronze. Singaporean athletes are paid the most for ascending the Olympic podium, receiving $1 million for a gold medal, $500,000 for silver, and $250,000 for bronze. However, for most athletes in most countries this bonus is not life-changing money. The real financial windfall for a successful runner is made through sponsorships, where finishing on the podium can gain an athlete millions of dollars in corporate backing. Signing an endorsement contract with Nike or Adidas or Puma can bring fame and fortune, provided the athlete continues to perform at the top level.

When the starting gun fired, 80,000 fans watched Kenenisa propel through the herd to take the lead and set the pace, a tactic he hadn’t employed in many of his preparatory races so far this year. The field of runners spread out into a long line, with everyone clamoring to stay with the front pack. Farah and Rupp were patient, at times dropping back out of the top 10, but always in the mix of runners in the lead group. More than half the athletes racing were in Nike spikes—their allegiance visible from the stands thanks to the neon yellow of their shoes.

There are two “long distance” Olympic track races: the 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters. The “ten” or “10K” as it’s called, is  the longest of the Olympic running events held on a track. Though the 26.2-mile marathon begins and ends on the Olympic stadium oval, it usually sends the athletes out to the streets of the host city, rather than forcing them to run 105.5 laps around the track. The 10,000-meter event was added to the Olympic program in 1912, though just for men. Women runners had to wait an additional 76 years to compete in their own 10K. The 6.2 miles is exactly 25 laps of a standard four-hundred-meter track.

Six minutes into the event, Eritrean Zersenay Tadese took the lead. Comparatively short and compact with a slight forward bob, the five-time World Half Marathon Champion was known for pressing the pace in past competitions. He pulled the group through the halfway point. After 18 minutes, Kiprop jogged off into the center of the track and dropped out. Twenty minutes in, Rupp found himself in fourth place, sandwiched in between the two Bekele brothers, with Kenenisa in front of him in third and his brother, Tariku, behind. Farah waited patiently as his coach had instructed, in sixth place. The front pack was now 12 athletes that had pulled away  from the others, with fellow Nike Oregon Project runner American Dathan Ritzenhein meters off the back in no man’s land, struggling to regain contact. Farah made a move to the front but didn’t attempt to drop the group. By the time the bell sounded for the last lap around the track, the race had seen no significant power plays.

With increasing urgency, Farah and Kenenisa battled around the final turn before the last lap with Tariku just off their heels—but Farah would not be denied.

As Farah accelerated ahead, the crowd drowned out any chance of hearing the stadium announcers. With his graceful long legs gobbling up the track, Farah’s feet flashed Nike yellow as he ran the final 400 meters in about 53 seconds. Rupp began his move into third at 27 minutes and 12 seconds and passed Tariku, and then, with just meters to go, overtook Kenenisa for silver.

Crossing the finish line first, Farah, arms outstretched, wore an expression of disbelief. As the men decelerated, Rupp, less than half a second behind Farah, screamed “Moooo!” The two men hugged. Then Farah, who is a practicing Muslim, got down on his knees, put his head on the polyurethane track, and bowed three times toward Mecca to the south. The cameras cut away until he was done with his prayers. He then rolled around like a joyful child before Rupp helped him up into an embrace. With arms slung around each other, both men flashed the No. 1 sign with their index fingers before Rupp remembered he was second and added the additional finger to make two.

The day would come to be known as Super Saturday in England, for the three gold medals won by their Olympic team in quick succession, ending with Farah’s.

“Look at the scalps of Africa taken by Mo Farah, and of course, Galen Rupp,” a broadcaster blared.

“It was the greatest feeling, perhaps, I’ve ever had,” said Salazar of the race. “It was better than anything I ever did in my own running career. Other than marrying my wife, and my kids’ births, this was the best feeling I’ve ever had in my life.”

His two stars had ascended to the top of the sport, just as he’d envisioned way back in 2001 at the inception of his running program. The stunning and decisive vindication for Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project would soon be immortalized in a banner featuring a photo of the duo’s triumphant finish that hung in the Lance Armstrong fitness center on the Nike campus. The decade-plus effort to help top American distance runners not only compete with but defeat the Kenyans and Ethiopians had finally paid off.

After the event, Salazar received more than 60 text messages, but the most crucial one came from Tom Clarke, the Nike vice president who had originally green-lit the Oregon Project. Watching from a hotel room in Atlanta he couldn’t hold back the tears of joy. His text message to Salazar read, “I’m so proud. Congrats. TC.”

————

As Farah and Rupp circled the track on their respective victory laps in London, back in Houston, Steve Magness’s cell phone lit up with texts of his own. As former assistant coach and scientific adviser to the prestigious program and Salazar’s former right-hand man, Magness had helped coach both athletes in their preparation for this day. However, since quitting his job two months earlier, the entire fiasco made him sick to his stomach as he considered what his former athletes had done to achieve greatness.

“It’s supposed to be this grand moment where you played a role in helping someone do something that no one thought was possible, and it’s the complete opposite,” Magness told ProPublica and the BBC. Instead, it was “one of the most disheartening moments of my life.”

He had moved back home to Texas crestfallen after leaving the palatial Nike campus and was trying to put his career and his life back together. Though he accepted a position as an assistant coach to the University of Houston’s track-and-field and cross-country programs, he ruminated on the many unsettling things he’d witnessed while employed at Nike world headquarters, which dampened his excitement for the sport that had become his life’s work.

Magness felt an obligation to tell anti-doping authorities what he’d seen, but this was no trivial decision for an exercise scientist deeply involved in the sport. He had a tough decision to make: keep his mouth shut and pretend he didn’t see anything untoward or contact the sporting authorities and let them decide what to do. Whistleblowing is typically a thankless act of sacrifice, Magness understood. Shining lights into dark and secret worlds and speaking truth to power comes with great risk, and here it was an even greater risk—because it directly implicated him. There was a very real chance coming forward could destroy any prospect of a career as a running coach, get him sued, and possibly land him with the scarlet letter of a USADA doping suspension.

“I’ve never experienced war or anything like that, but I experienced PTSD from this,” Magness said when we met in Houston for interviews in the fall of 2018. He’s of average height, slight build, and looks every bit a scientist with dark un-moussed hair, glasses, and an introverted demeanor.

Growing up in the North Houston suburbs in the academic shadow of his older brother, Magness turned to sports as a way to differentiate himself. He loved soccer, but was the progeny of track men (his father ran, and his grandfather was a state champion).

In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson started a program called the Presidential Physical Fitness Test, as a way to encourage exercise among school-aged kids through a variety of challenges. One of which was the timed mile. This was where Magness caught the first glimpse of his future.

By high school his coaches encouraged him to stop playing soccer altogether, then his teammates coerced him to take training seriously. He would run before and after school and started putting in 15 miles every day. “My entire senior year of high school, I stayed up past 10 p.m. a total of six times,” Magness later said of his dedication. His mile time improved from four minutes and 21 seconds his freshman year to an astonishing four minutes and one second as a senior, the fastest mile run by any high schooler that year.

“I thought, straight up, I was going to college, and then I was going to run professionally,” said Magness, “and I was going to go to the Olympics.” That year, the Houston Chronicle listed him as a “Legend in the Making,” in an article about the city’s next generation of sports superstars.

He chose to attend Rice University to study exercise science and ran well at cross-country as a freshman, but his track season went poorly. “I didn’t care about schoolwork, I didn’t care about grades. I didn’t care about any of it,” said Magness. “I was just all running.” His entire identity was wrapped up in being fast, so when running wasn’t going well, he questioned his value as a person. Looking for a change he transferred to the University of Houston just five miles away. His performance improved on the new team, but not to the level of expectation he had garnered coming out of high school.

After graduation Magness moved into a running commune of sorts with a few friends in Los Angeles. The two-bedroom condo was subsidized by the local running store so the six postcollegiate athletes, who all slept in bunk beds, could have an opportunity and some breathing room financially to train and race. Magness focused on road 5K events, but only lasted six months in the house before he left for graduate school in Virginia.

As it became painfully clear that his dream of running for his country in the Olympics wasn’t going to happen, Magness gradually turned his attention to sport science. He began training with Alan Webb and his coach Scott Raczko while studying physiology at George Mason University. The time spent with America’s best miler was formative for Magness. He witnessed how hard Webb worked, day in and day out, with Raczko. “And he was clean,” said Magness. In December 2010, he visited Webb, who was now living in Oregon and training under Salazar. Magness tagged along for Webb’s daily training at the Nike campus, where he unintentionally impressed the coach. Crowded around a small screen, watching a video of Paula Radcliffe’s running form, Magness made an astute comment that no one had asked him for.

Still, when Salazar called to offer him employment, he thought it was a practical joke. In 2011 Magness accepted what he can only describe as his dream job, working with the most powerful coach in track and field and some of the fastest distance runners on the planet at Nike in Beaverton, Oregon. He ignored red flags—like Salazar’s rumored testing of testosterone or the flippancy with which he passed out prescription drugs—with the typical gusto of a new Nike employee. A wide-eyed Magness worked in the Mia Hamm office building and met daily with his athletes in the Lance Armstrong fitness center. He ate in a cafeteria named Boston, after the marathon. He saw NBA star Manu Ginóbili one day while working with an athlete on an AlterG treadmill and LeBron James on another day in the Bo Jackson gym. His friends and even his parents would frequently remind him of his amazing luck and privileged position. “I’m thinking my future is set,” said Magness. “I’m going to do this, and if Salazar retires, maybe I’ll get his position. I don’t have to do anything else for my life.”

Over time, however, the veneer wore off, and the reality of the high-pressure environment began to seem at odds with Magness’s moral compass. He had witnessed Salazar acting in dishonorable ways, but, at least at first, nothing overtly illegal. He’d seen him bully doctors into giving both himself and his athletes prescription drugs they didn’t have a medical need for. He had watched as Salazar celebrated injuries to Nike athletes trained by rival coaches. Salazar was obsessed with beating Jerry Schumacher, a fellow Nike running coach he had hired to succeed him, who eventually broke off to run his own, rival program within the brand’s ecosystem. And the most cringeworthy of all, Salazar had a habit of making in- appropriate comments about female athletes’ bodies, especially his star athlete Kara Goucher.

Though Salazar tended to act as his athletes’ doctor, his undergraduate degree was in business and marketing. By the time he hired Magness, he had a reputation as a trainer who chased one scientifically suspect trend after another, often changing direction and making decisions on gut feeling instead of solid data, at great expense to Nike. In an interview with Sports Illustrated years earlier, Salazar appeared cavalier about his own drug use. He admitted to experimenting with the corticosteroid prednisone in an attempt to revive his deficient adrenal system, and noted that he was on Prozac when he won his last race, the 55-mile Comrades Marathon in South Africa, in 1994.

According to the USADA report on the Nike Oregon Project, Salazar admitted to also secretly taking testosterone around this time—a drug which is unambiguously illegal in all sports—a fact the world wouldn’t find out about until the report went public in 2017.

Magness, on the other hand, had both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in exercise science, having graduated summa cum laude. The day he arrived at the leafy Nike campus he instantly imbued Salazar’s running program with scientific credibility.

Early in his tenure at Nike, a number of disconcerting things began happening. While Magness was on a trip with Galen Rupp in Germany, Salazar mailed the runner drugs, which he’d placed in a secret hole cut into a Clive Cussler novel. Shortly thereafter, Salazar asked Magness to investigate a substance called L-carnitine—a drug that is not on the banned list—after researchers in England discovered that it could possibly improve running endurance.

The substance, though easy to find on the open market, had a notoriously long load time, which meant that to get L-carnitine into athletes at the levels required to realize performance-enhancement they’d have to employ experimental techniques.

Salazar feared other coaches would soon begin exploring the supplement, too. With the 2012 Olympic Trials approaching he ratcheted up efforts with Dr. Jeffrey Stuart Brown to use an infusion method that the supplement researchers had used as a proof of concept. The method bumped up against World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) rules around infusions, but, Magness told me, Salazar said he’d cleared everything with USADA.

“The next one was the testosterone,” said Magness. Later the same year, while reviewing some historical medical data on the Oregon Project athletes, he noticed a line item for Rupp that read, “Presently on prednisone and testosterone medication.”

He took it to Salazar, who reviewed it and then told him it was a mistake. Salazar blamed Dr. Loren Myhre, the Nike physiologist who had entered the early notes. “He said Loren was crazy, that’s why it was wrong, he never said anything about it being a supplement,” Magness explained.

Initially, Magness managed to convince himself the notation was probably a mistake, though he logged it in the back of his mind as yet another red flag before going back to work. From that day on, he and Salazar would never see eye to eye again.

About a year in, Magness said Nike stopped paying him his salary, a turn of events he is convinced was orchestrated by Salazar. “Any leverage Alberto had to make you afraid of your job or just putting you on edge,” he explained, “he took advantage of.” So Magness quit, and after watching Rupp, whom he described as “not even on the same sphere of talent level as Alan Webb,” take silver at the 2012 London Olympics, right behind Farah, decided to send the most consequential email of his life.

On Dec. 10, 2012, Magness sent the following message to USADA’s “Play Clean” email address:

Look into the Nike Oregon Project athletes.

I’m strongly suspicious of using testosterone cream as I saw it labeled in test results for Galen Rupp before. Along with the fact their head coach has a prescription himself for testosterone cream.

Also,  Hemoglobin  levels  are  regularly  in  the  17–17.8  levels  for athletes with total red blood cell mass as high as 1100g for an athlete like Galen Rupp. Those are pretty high levels, even with the use of altitude or simulated altitude. Unfortunately I was not privy to blood volume and therefore hematocrit levels.

They’re also pretty good at doing legal injections under 50ml instead of infusions. I know it’s permitted, but they’ve done this with L-carnitine, magnesium, and iron, plus a few others probably. L-carnitine they took an infusion protocol and instead went with 3–4 small injections while drinking a high-glucose drink instead of the glucose+carnitine infusion that was done in the medical journals.

What began as a cathartic truth-telling exercise for Magness ignited a full-blown investigation by USADA, which typically follows up on all credible tip-offs. They interviewed Magness multiple times in the proceeding months and commandeered his laptop and phone, which they scoured for evidence of further wrongdoing. They told him that they were going to ban him first, for the L-carnitine infusion he received as Nike Oregon Project’s guinea pig, and then work on getting Salazar and Dr. Brown suspensions.

Whistleblowers have protection for a reason: In exchange for their valuable and reliable information, they are usually given a lighter sentence, or none at all. In our interviews, Magness said he told USADA, “Look, if you think I deserve a ban, well okay. But this sucks because along with the Gouchers, this whole shit starts with me coming forward and risking everything.

“What if you ban me, and then Alberto goes through his arbitration and he gets off scot-free? So then the one person who is going to be banned is me. I’m not painting myself as some righteous person who’s 100% in the right all the time. I’m flawed and I’m human and I did some stuff that I deeply regret. And if I went back, I wouldn’t do it again. But it’s not like you caught me. I’m giving you all this stuff because, for the greater good, there is some shit that needs to be fixed here.”

From Win at All Costs by Matt Hart. Copyright © 2020 by Matt Hart. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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