SII Focus 26th February 2017

USADA report raises questions about Nike Oregon Project methods

A 269-page report prepared by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has raised further questions about the methods used by Alberto Salazar on US athletes at the Nike Oregon Project, according to an article published in today’s Sunday Times. Salazar coaches a number of high profile athletes, including Great Britain’s Mo Farah and the US’s Galen Rupp.

USADA’s report alleges that infusions of L-carnitine given to six US runners trained by Salazar ‘almost certainly’ broke anti-doping rules, reported the newspaper. L-carnitine does not feature on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Prohibited List, however USADA reportedly found that the amount of the substance given to athletes may have been in excess of that permitted under WADA rules on ‘infusions’.

The Sunday Times also reported that USADA was still investigating whether the Nike Oregon Project had administered an ‘infusion’ of L-carnitine to Farah at the time the March 2016 interim report was produced. Farah and Salazar have denied any wrongdoing.

USADA also reportedly alleges that Salazar encouraged athletes to take thyroid medication (thyroxine), calcitonin, ferrous sulphate and high doses of vitamin D in order to improve athletic performance. In October 2015, USADA and UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) expressed disappointment that thyroid medication was not included on the 2016 Prohibited List.

USADA’s report alleges that Dr. Jeffrey S. Brown, a endocrinologist and medic with the Nike Oregon Project, provided medications to athletes who had no medical need for them, reports the newspaper. Brown told the Sunday Times that USADA had created ‘fake news’.

Analysis

Apart from potential breaches of WADA’s limits on IV infusions, there is no suggestion that any rules have been broken. None of the substances featuring in the Sunday Times report feature on WADA’s Prohibited List. It is important to remember that athletes go to organisations such as the Nike Oregon Project in order to optimise performance, just as they might train at altitude, sleep in oxygen tents or take numerous legal supplements. Moralistic views aside, elite sport is often about using any method within the rules in order to optimise performance.

L-carnitine is a naturally-occurring substance that metabolises fat within the human body, however in 2011 a study found that its oral ingestion could help improve athletic performance. The authors of that study produced NutraMet Sport, an oral supplement that claimed to result in a ‘10% improvement in work output’ during a 30 minute time-trial’. Farah and Rupp both admitted to using L-carnitine orally in 2015.

The Sunday Times reports that USADA found that intravenous ‘infusions’ of L-carnitine were tested on Steve Magness, and following impressive results were then given to other athletes in December 2011 and January 2012. The USADA report alleges that Farah was given an L-carnitine ‘infusion’ in the UK In 2014, reports the Sunday Times, however there is no suggestion that the Nike Oregon Project gave Farah L-carnitine infusions. USADA’s report said that Rupp was given a L-carnitine ‘infusion’ on 5 July 2012 ‘in an amount USADA believes…may have exceeded the WADA 50ml limit’, reports the newspaper.

‘Intravenous infusions and/or injections of more than 50 mL per 6 hour period except for those legitimately received in the course of hospital admissions, surgical procedures or clinical investigations’, reads Section M2 of WADA’s Prohibited List. Any investigation as to whether anti-doping rules have been broken would have to ascertain if the alleged intravenous infusions were above the levels permitted by WADA, however there is little detail on this in the Sunday Times article.

The USADA report found that Magness was given an intravenous infusion of a least a litre, reports the newspaper. Although that is way above the intravenous infusion limits permitted by WADA, athletes are often unaware that such a limit exists.

Earlier this year, Manchester City midfielder Samir Nasri found himself in hot water after a picture was posted on Twitter alleging that he had used a one litre hydration drip at a Los Angeles clinic. A US weightlifter received a 14-month ban in August last year for use of an IV drip outside of WADA guidelines; cyclist Jeone Park received a two-year ban for the same offence in April; and, famously, USADA issued a 25-page rebuttal of allegations that it had acted incorrectly in allowing boxer Floyd Mayweather to retrospectively apply for a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for use of an IV drip after his fight against Manny Pacquiao on 2 May 2015.

The exact purpose of USADA’s report remains unclear. A USADA statement said that the leaked document was a draft of a report prepared in response to a subpoena from a state medical licensing body. The Sunday Times said that the report was intended to be submitted to the Texas Medical Board. On 23 June last year, USADA filed a court action in Harris County, Texas, seeking evidence from Brown about the methods he had used on athletes.

The report was leaked to the Sunday Times’ Insight team by Fancy Bears, which has previously published TUEs held by western athletes and has illegally accessed the email systems of western national anti-doping agencies (NADOs), such as USADA and the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES). Last week, The Sports Integrity Initiative was contacted by journalists working for Russian state TV channel MatchTV with questions concerning Salazar’s relationship with Farah.

The true purpose of the report is important. A report designed to force Dr. Brown to testify under allegations of medical malpractice is perhaps different from an ordinary USADA investigative report into allegations of anti-doping rule violations. The Sports Integrity Initiative has asked USADA to clarify the true purpose of the report as well as whether the final draft differed substantially from the one obtained by the Sunday Times.

It is also interesting that MatchTV began asking questions about the relationship between Salazar and Farah before the release of the Sunday Times report. It was leaked to the newspaper ahead of Tuesday’s US House of Representatives hearing entitled ‘Ways to improve and strengthen the international anti-doping system’.

What is perhaps concerning for Salazar and Brown is the potential impact that this could have on their professional reputation. ‘USADA has found substantial and compelling evidence that Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar and Houston endocrinologist Dr. Jeffrey Brown conspired to collude together to employ risky and untested alternative and unconventional (and sometimes potentially unlawful) uses of medical procedures and prescription medications (including both substances and methods prohibited and/or potentially prohibited under the rules of sport and those that were not) to attempt to increase the testosterone and energy levels and the recovery capacity of Nike Oregon Project athletes in order to boost athletic performance’, the Sunday Times said the report concluded.

Salazar has been here before. In response to a June 2015 investigation by the BBC, Salazar wrote two open letters refuting allegations that he had used unethical practices on athletes, which can be accessed here and here. The BBC’s investigation appears to have been the impetus behind the USADA report leaked by Fancy Bears to the Sunday Times.

Although it has yet to be proved that any rules have been broken, USADA’s conclusions regarding the alleged use of medications and medical procedures at the Nike Oregon Project will make uncomfortable reading for any athlete or sports organisation. They also put the future of the Nike Oregon Project into severe jeopardy.

In a statement (below), Salazar accused the Sunday Times of recycling allegations made two years ago. ‘L-Carnitine is a widely available, legal nutritional supplement that is not banned by WADA’, it read. ‘Any use of L-Carnitine was done so within ADA guidelines. In this case, to ensure my interpretation of WADA rules was correct, I also communicated in writing with USADA in advance of the use and administration of L-Carnitine with Oregon Project athletes. Oregon Project athletes were then administered L-Carnitine in exactly the same way USADA directed. I have voluntarily cooperated with USADA for years and met with them over a year ago. The leaking of information and the litigation of false allegations in the press is disturbing, desperate and a denial of due process. I look forward to this unfair and protracted process reaching the conclusion I know to be true.’

 

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