When a globally-accomplished ultrarunner and coach writes a book about the biggest sports brand in the world, you wonder what he’s got to say that you haven’t heard before
Exhibit A: At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the USA won 32 gold medals in track and field events. All of those 32 medals were won by athletes sponsored by Nike. That statistic mentioned by the author of Win At All Costs: Inside Nike Running And Its Culture of Deception just begins to describe the outsized influence that Nike exerts over global athletics.
Exhibit B: After years of backing their star athlete, Lance Armstrong, Nike eventually severed ties with him in 2012, when the evidence against him became embarrassingly obvious. Till he was outed by former teammates, he was all swagger about his supposed clean record and unprecedented 7 titles at the Tour De France, cycling’s pinnacle.
In Win at All Costs: Inside Nike Running and Its Culture of Deception, Matt Hart’s intent is to make the reader pause, and consider the ‘win at all costs’ approach that the company pursued over three decades, as exemplified by their one-time star athlete, and later celebrated coach, the now-disgraced Alberto Salazar. As the head of the Nike Oregon Project, Salazar is used as an exemplar of the pernicious tactics employed by Nike in its quest to boost its brand via the success of its athletes, by whatever they can get away with. While messing around with doping controls is mostly what the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) banned Salazar for four years in 2019 (Incidentally, his appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) comes up this month), it is just one of the many transgressions he seems to have committed as a coach. When you consider the behaviours exhibited by Salazar starting with commenting inappropriately on the bodies of female athletes, intimidating them about their careers or trying to force them to delay their having a family, gaining access to private conversations of his athletes with their ‘psychologist’, taking pleasure in the misery of injuries to athletes of a rival coach, being so sore at his athletes’ losses to their rivals that he’d file objections to their performances and try to get them disqualified or their results annulled, you realise “unsportsmanlike” is woefully inadequate.
What is also puzzling about this set of events, especially someone from outside the world of athletics, is how conveniently the other people associated with Salazar seem to have escaped censure — the Nike employees who funded and aided his operation and some athletes who trained under him. For example, how Mo Farah, the double gold medallist from both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, hasn’t seen any official sanction is a perplexing matter. Farah severed ties with Salazar in 2017, conveniently well after the Rio Olympics. On the matter of intimidation of female athletes in particular, especially on maternity leave, Nike came under fire in 2018 and 2019 for contractual terms that discouraged their female athletes from getting pregnant, with up to 70 per cent pay cuts (even for someone with nine Olympic medals) when they weren’t competing. Kara Goucher’s harrowing struggle on this pay cut issue when she was pregnant with her first child is one of the many ugly but necessary stories one must read in the book. Nike launched a maternity line in September 2020. Make of that what you will.
You could be forgiven for being deeply cynical about professional sport — given how frequent doping busts have been in cycling, track and field events and swimming (three categories of sports that account for a significant share of medals at the Olympics) in just the last two decades. The book is a wakeup call about how blinded companies and people who work for them — not to forget the countries where these companies are based — can get in their pursuit of the limelight. And while Nike and running in the US, in particular, are the objects of the author’s attention, one wonders how deep the rot is in other sport, other companies and other countries. To think we would have learnt from the horrors of the state-sponsored doping programmes of East Germany in the late ’70s and ’80s. The Cold War may have been over for three decades, but as Ma’s army from China in the late ’90s and the Russians profiled in the documentary Icarus has shown, the battles have just shifted to other fronts. And seemingly, you do whatever you think you can get away with. There may be some hope in the form of some brilliant journalists and whistleblowing athletes and officials, but it seems like a Sisyphean task to clean sport.