DOHA (Reuters) - The athletics world championships were hit by another unwanted distraction on Tuesday when renowned American coach Alberto Salazar was banned for four years for doping violations, putting the sport again in the drugs spotlight.
The timing of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) announcement that Salazar had been banned for “orchestrating and facilitating prohibited doping conduct” could not have come at a worse time for the sport.
The news landed like a grenade right in the middle of the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) showcase world championships, adding another headache to an event already dogged by criticism over sparse attendance and searing heat.
Asked by Reuters if they had any issue with the timing of USADA’s announcement, the IAAF declined to comment.
If the never-ending Russian doping saga was not enough, the latest scandal hit home with several of the runners Salazar coached, members of the Nike Oregon Project (NOP) — an elite long-distance running training center he managed — competing at the championships.
Two of that group have won gold medals in Doha — the Netherlands’ Sifan Hassan in the women’s 10,000 meters and American Donavan Brazier in the men’s 800m.
Hassan said on Tuesday she felt sad that the USADA had released the findings of an investigation that had been percolating for almost six years during the championships.
There has been no suggestion of wrongdoing by Hassan, who was quick to distance herself from Salazar, noting that the investigation was focused on a period before she joined the Oregon Project.
“I am saddened by the timing of USADA as it brings my championship out of balance but I will focus all my energy on my next race and my performance in the 1,500m, a race that I have worked hard to prepare for and am very excited to race in hopes of winning my second world title,” Hassan said.
Salazar, who has coached some of the world’s top distance runners including British multiple Olympic and world champion Mo Farah, was quickly stripped of his championships accreditation by the U.S. track and field federation, leaving behind his runners to answer questions.
Both Brazier and eighth-place finisher Clayton Murphy, also a member of the NOP, were grilled by the media the moment they stepped into the mixed zone after their race.
“Not at all,” said Brazier when asked if the news had distracted him. “I mean he’s not my coach.
“The only contact I’ve had with Alberto has been pleasant. I like Alberto, he’s a cool guy.
“I’m just really happy to win the race and get a gold medal out of today.”
“The ban on Alberto is disappointing; at the end of the day he is the founder of the Oregon Project.”
Salazar said in a statement that he had not done anything wrong and would appeal against the USADA’s decision.
Few athletes asked about the ban at the worlds on Tuesday were critical of the 61-year-old.
Jamaican sprint coach Stephen Francis said of Salazar: “Like every coach, he wants to try and get a leg up on the competition but it’s hard for me to really, I wouldn’t say blame, but to disparage him because as I said, he’s just pushing the envelope as far as coaching is concerned.
“I don’t know about the trafficking in testosterone and that kind of stuff but certainly in terms of the infusions and trying to test people to see whether or not they will test positive based on what you’re doing, I don’t really see that as a big issue,” Francis told Reuters.
“It is surprising that this is coming up now after the whole thing was aired two or more years ago.”
Editing by Clare Fallon