Nike to Shut Down Oregon Project After Top Coach Is Banned

By Scott Soshnick and Eben Novy-Williams | October 11, 2019

Nike Inc. is ending its Oregon Project supporting elite track athletes after a top coach was banned for violating anti-doping rules in a scandal that has engulfed the sport’s biggest corporate backer.

A company spokesman confirmed the decision, which came less than two weeks after the project’s head and coach Alberto Salazar was barred from the sport for four years.

The project’s demise is a blow to Nike’s track and field efforts. The company has $4.5 billion in annual running sales, and its marketing within the professional ranks is a large part of that appeal. Nike is the biggest sponsor of running both in the U.S. and abroad, with close partnerships with the U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Track & Field, international events and national bodies.

“This situation, along with ongoing unsubstantiated assertions, is a distraction for many of the athletes and is compromising their ability to focus on their training and competition needs,” Nike Chief Executive Officer Mark Parker said in a letter sent to the project team Thursday. “I have therefore made the decision to wind down the Oregon Project.”

Nike shares were up 1.3% to $94.23 at 9:35 a.m. Friday in New York, having gained 25% this year through Thursday.

Following a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency probe that spanned years, an independent arbitration panel found that Salazar helped traffic testosterone, a banned substance, and tampered with evidence, but found no evidence that he administered the drugs to runners. Salazar has denied wrongdoing and has said he will appeal.

Cutting Edge

Nike “will continue to support Alberto in his appeal,” it said in a statement Thursday.

Parker, who was found by the agency to have been aware of some of Salazar’s activity, has also stood by the coach.

Salazar and Tom Clarke, still a Nike executive, helped found the Nike Oregon Project in 2001. The goal was to use cutting-edge technology — Nike’s — and training methods to create a distance-running juggernaut. It was a union of expertise and sponsorship unlike any other in the track world.

Working out of Nike’s Oregon headquarters, Salazar and his team found a lot of success, especially with British distance runner Mo Farah, who won a total of four Olympic gold medals at the 2012 and 2016 games. U.S. runner Galen Rupp, a two-time Olympian, was perhaps Salazar’s other most successful runner.

Over time the team became a focus of the track community, both for Salazar’s training methods and for rumors of doping. Many of those allegations formed the backbone of USADA’s surprise ruling against him. The four-year ban was the doping agency’s highest-profile ruling since 2016, when it banned cycling champion Lance Armstrong for life.

Shuttering the Oregon Project won’t end Nike’s dominance as a sponsor of track athletes. The team had about a dozen members, according to its website, a small percentage of the many runners sponsored by the world’s largest sneaker and athletic apparel company.

Some of NOP’s runners are coached by people other than Salazar. They include Dutch star Sifan Hassan, who recently won the women’s 10,000m at the World Championships in Qatar and U.S. sprinter Donavan Brazier, who set a U.S. record in the men’s 800m at the same race.

Nike will help all of its athletes under the program with choosing the coaching set-up that is right for them in this transition, Parker said.

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