DOHA, Qatar – Not a single runner passing through the orbit of famed track coach Alberto Salazar has been implicated for doping, so when Donavan Brazier coasted in for a blowout victory Tuesday in the 800-meter race at world championships, there was no reason to suspect he would be, either.
But for Brazier, the 22-year-old who became the first American to win a world championship at this distance, there was no avoiding the subject of Salazar.
And for track and field, there is no avoiding the ever-present specter of doping. On a night when American men won gold in the 200, 800 and pole vault, many of the questions were about a 61-year-old coach who was kicked out of the event earlier in the day.
Brazier runs for the Nike Oregon Project, a 12-person track team headed by Salazar. He was ejected after receiving a four-year suspension for violations that involved pushing his runners to use pills, gels and infusions in ways designed to stretch the rules without quite breaking them.
In a way, Salazar’s schemes were a success because none of his athletes ever got caught.
Brazier says the man who coaches him at NOP isn’t Salazar, but an assistant, Pete Julian, who was present after the finish, beaming like a proud papa. In fact, Brazier said he barely knows Salazar.
It didn’t mean the new champion, whose time of 1 minute, 42.34 seconds set an American record, wouldn’t face questions about his affiliation with the team Salazar runs – a team that had been under investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for around six years before the ban came down Tuesday.
“I think it would be pretty ignorant to associate me with that,” Brazier said. “I think the investigation started when I was in high school, and I had nothing to do with it.”
Brazier joins distance runner Sifan Hassan as the second athlete from the NOP to win a gold medal at these championships. Over the years, Salazar’s most decorated champion was Britain’s Mo Farah, the four-time Olympic gold medalist who isn’t anywhere near Doha but still felt compelled to issue a statement distancing himself from his old coach.
“I left the Nike Oregon Project in 2017 but as I’ve always said, I have no tolerance for anyone who breaks the rules or crosses a line,” Farah said.
Exculpatory doping statements from non-competing athletes probably aren’t what this sport had in mind when it looked for new ways to make headlines in this new era now void of the sport’s only superstar, the retired Usain Bolt.
One man who might have the star power to fill some of that void is American sprinter Noah Lyles. He needed about six steps to overtake the competition at the start of the homestretch of the men’s 200, then beat Canada’s Andre De Grasse going away, in 19.83 seconds.
Lyles, who died his hair silver for this race, took a leisurely victory lap, stopping a couple times to kneel and kiss the track as photographers chased him around the oval.
Lyles and 100-meter champion Christian Coleman, another American caught in a doping saga, are headed for what could be a fun showdown at the Tokyo Olympics next year, when both are expected to go for the 100-200 double.
“This gold, overall, was taken care of,” said Lyles, who is expected to team with Coleman on the U.S. 4x100 relay team later this week. “Now we’re going to get that double gold, maybe even triple, for Tokyo.”
But Lyles isn’t Bolt – and Doha certainly isn’t Tokyo … or London … or Beijing … or anyplace Bolt has ever run.
An already-thin crowd had disappeared almost completely by the time Lyles was done with his celebration. Thus closed another low-attendance and embarrassing session for organizers, whose insistence on not scheduling day action in the air-conditioned stadium made for a long night filled with lots of field events – fans watching lonely javelin and hammer throwers do their thing, interrupted by an occasional burst of action on the track.
In the day’s two field finals, Australia’s Kelsey-Lee Barber won the javelin throw and American Sam Kendricks defended his pole vault title, then celebrated by trampolining around on the landing mat with his co-medalists: Armand Duplantis of Sweden (silver) and Piotr Lisek of Poland (bronze).
But as the day’s developments illustrated, track and field can only dream that its worst problems involve the debate over why its biggest event is being held in a land where very few people care about the sport.
Instead, the main topic was doping – on this day, in the form of Salazar, a legend who made more news by being barred from the stadium than anyone did while running inside of it.
Not Brazier’s problem, he insisted.
The theme he harped on through all the questioning: He’s coached by Julian, not Salazar.
“It’s disappointing,” Brazier said, “that the most coverage we get in track and field is for bad things like that.”
He was hardly the first winner at a track meet to share that sentiment – and he almost certainly won’t be the last.
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