I AM an ardent subscriber to the “no smoke without fire” aphorism. It is why, in 2019, when Alberto Salazar was accused and then banned from athletics for doping offences, I accepted he was guilty as charged without much further thought.

However, over the course of a new hour-and-a-half documentary entitled “Nike’s Big Bet”, which centres on the American running coach, I began to realise there are perhaps more grey areas than I initially thought. 

It also raises the complex issue of the difference between what is legally permitted within elite sport and what moral standards are, perhaps unreasonably, expected to be upheld.

As an athlete, Salazar was a world-class distance runner, winning the New York marathon three times and, in 1982, topping the marathon world rankings. His philosophy was “more is better”, concluding that if 100 miles a week made you a good runner, 180 miles a week would make you an even better one. His approach was to push himself to the limit, and then keep pushing.

Following his retirement as an athlete, the American moved into coaching and had incredible success heading up the famous, or infamous, Nike Oregon Project.

Salazar has led the likes of Mo Farah, Galen Rupp, Sifan Hassan and Kara Goucher to world and Olympic success which was why his suspension, which was confirmed bang in the middle of the 2019 World Championships, came as such a shock.

The documentary examines Salazar’s coaching methods, with contributions from a number of his current and former athletes, as well as athletics experts, and looks at the allegations of both the abuse of his athletes and the claims of doping.

Certainly – and the documentary highlights this – there is something odd about Salazar having been convicted of doping his athletes, although none of them have ever failed a test or been found guilty of doping offences.

No positive tests, as we are all well aware, does not necessarily prove an absence of doping. But the commentary in this documentary, particularly from Malcolm Gladwell, the Canadian journalist and author who popularised the rule that 10,000 hours of practice is what it takes to become an expert in a given field, questions whether Salazar is the type of personality who would dope personally, or encourage others to do so. Salazar’s mindset is, argues Gladwell, the absolute antithesis of someone who would dope.

Doping is, like all forms of cheating, a way to cut corners, to ensure you don’t have to go the extra mile. 

That is not Salazar’s way. His coaching methods include the use of underwater treadmills, infrared pods and cryosaunas; his dedication to eliciting every per cent from his athletes is bordering on maniacal.

This approach, suggests Gladwell, is not how a doper would approach the sport; a doper takes drugs in order to avoid having to go to such extreme lengths.

Salazar has an appeal of his four-year suspension pending, with many believing the 62-year-old is likely to be successful in overturning the ruling. Certainly having the full backing of Nike will help his cause.

If Salazar does win his appeal, there remains another question about his methods: do they cross a moral and ethical line?

Is the only code to which athletes must adhere to that of the laws of the sport, or is there a moral code that is expected to be followed?

This is where the huge grey area lies.

While Salazar experimenting with the drug L-carnitine may not be illegal within sport, is it moral?

For some, like Goucher, who was coached by Salazar for several years, she was clear where her moral line was and after witnessing some of Salazar’s methods which, she claims, included administering medicine to athletes when they had no need of it, she could no longer bear to be a part of the Oregon Project set-up and left.

That Goucher would risk damaging her own chances of success on the track in order to uphold her ethical standards is admirable. But not everyone would act in a similar manner. And the answer to whether they should be expected to will never be agreed upon by everybody.

There have been many similar cases; Maria Sharapova taking meldonium, Chris Froome using inhalers to name two – did they flirt with the line when it came to medical intervention without explicitly breaking rules?

The same issue arises with some of Salazar’s methods. They may not be banned but are they moral, and do they contravene the spirit of sport?

I have an issue with these standards. I’m all for sport being a morally pure place, but we all have to accept this is unlikely to be the case. The entire purpose of sport is to find an edge which separates you from your competitors.

Breaking the rules, be it by doping, or another method of cheating is, of course unacceptable. But when people start to assume that athletes and coaches will bring impeccable morals to the sporting field, they are certain to be disappointed.

Elite sport is an eat or be eaten world. And that, unfortunately means coaches and athletes alike will look for every way possible to push the boundaries without stepping over the line.