On October 1, 2019 Alberto Salazar, perhaps the greatest track coach on Earth, was suspended for doping violations. Did he do it? Or is Salazar being victimized for his obsessive methods of pushing athletes to their absolute limits.
The documentary curiously titled Nike’s Big Bet by writer, director, and filmmaker Paul Kemp is a must-see piece of journalism. The 82-minute expository does not accuse banned coach Alberto Salazar of cheating or fat-shaming and abusing athletes, however, Kemp’s narrative asks the viewer to arrive at their own conclusion. Kemp put all the facts forward craftily delivered by a who’s who of North American running.
The film — especially author Malcolm Gladwell — asks rhetorically, why you would consider Alberto Salazar to be your man knowing full well that he was no parent coach, but a win-at-all-costs coach? He was a known entity.
The premise of Nike’s Big Bet begins with Nike as a start-up. During the early days, as Gladwell illustrated in his best-selling book Outliers, timing and opportunity are as important as the much-ballyhooed 10,000 hours of practice required to achieve greatness. The American running boom was blossoming and at the same time, Nike was a growing concern.
Nike had a hero under contract to hang their brand on named Steve Prefontaine, but like James Dean, his legend is much greater than his short career was, exacerbated by their tragic and untimely death. Prefontaine, who embodied the Nike win at all costs aphorism died in 1975 in a car crash. The company, growing rapidly amidst the early 1970s running boom, which included Frank Shorter, Bill Rogers, Dick Beardsley, and Alberto Salazar among others, needed a new hero. As a very athletics-centric company, they hung their swoosh on running great Alberto Salazar, a multi-time New York City Marathon winner. He was an athlete who would run himself to death for the win. He embodied the maverick spirit of both Nike owner Phil Knight and Prefontaine’s brash win at all costs attitude.
Then elite American marathon running died for a period of about 10 years starting with the onset of the East African invasion. Nike wanted to fix that and Salazar (in perfect Outlier-like timing) stepped out from the shadows of retirement. He confidently pronounced that there is no reason why Americans cannot compete internationally in distance running and with Nike’s backing he was ready to remedy the situation. Together they created the Nike Oregon Project.
The premise’s tone was set in the narrative delivered primarily by Let’sRun.com’s Weldon Johnson and especially Gladwell and Amby Burfoot by saying, in not so many words, the red flags of extreme determination were out there. Anyone who was expecting anything less didn’t do their homework. Perhaps Mary Cain’s parents will feel slighted by Nike’s Big Bet after being found guilty of sending their teenage daughter clear across the country to train under Salazar.
Kemp dives into the super shoe debate, which is almost a different story from the NOP-Salazar issue. However, it illustrates the maverick nature of the company as a whole. Considering their attempt to have Eliud Kipchoge twice try to run the marathon distance under two hours and their brazen super shoe design, their modus operandi is embellished well here.
Salazar, with Nike’s full backing, is appealing his four-year ban from the sport. The bettors believe they will win. The bettors believe he may have pushed boundaries legal and moral and perhaps otherwise but is not a proven cheater or abuser. This has yet to be decided, but Nike is putting millions of dollars into the legal fight; to back their Big Bet.
Kemp spoke with a range of athletes and journalists including Alex Hutchinson of Outside and Globe and Mail, Sports Illustrated’s Chris Chavez, Johnson, retirees Ken Goe from the Oregonian, and Burfoot, 20-year editor of Runner’s World Magazine. He also spoke to several former Nike athletes including Cameron Levins, and Kara Goucher among others. Jake Riley and Jared Ward, were never Nike athletes but were also interviewed, Ward specifically about an interesting perspective on super shoes. Apparently, Kemp gave Paula Radcliffe, Jordan Hasay, and Cain the opportunity to speak on camera, they all refused.
Where the film falls short a little is in the repeated statement that Salazar is or was the greatest coach in the world. Where that leaves Brother Colm O’Connell, Renato Canova and Arthur Lydiard in the pantheon of the sport thousands of champions will wonder, but they each have had more success and for a longer period of time than Salazar did. In fact, it is Arthur Lydiard’s training that Salazar believes he coaches by, he said so at a Canadian coaching conference in 2013. Nike Founder Bill Bowerman, when given a citation by John F. Kennedy for helping to create the American running boom, said, “I am but the messenger, Arthur Lydiard of New Zealand is the prophet.”
It was in part O’Connell’s and Canova’s coaching of East Africans that helped create the invasion that Nike and Salazar were battling against. Salazar was never the greatest coach in the world, however, he was highly influential and certainly prominent for a spell. The most driven coach would be more accurate, but the assertion weaves well with the narrative.
Dathan Ritzenhein stated and as anyone who has read Win at All Costs by Matt Hart will tell you, “he cared, but didn’t really know how to get there.”
And according to this documentary, he tried everything that he legally could to make American distance running, well, great again and despite his flaws, he did just that for a spell.
Interestingly the athletes who Kemp interviewed, who are still competing or like Ritzenhein coaching, wore their current sponsor’s attire, upstart brands — like Nike once was — HOKA and the Swiss On as well as Saucony brazenly front a centre.
Kemp leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether Salazar was a cheat and an abuser. He kept a delicate balance of not painting Salazar as evil but very driven. The film is well worth the watch and will surely be a hit at a similar level to the Oscar-winning 2017 documentary Icarus. In fact, it is better.