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The Book of the Week is “The Longest Race, Inside the Secret World of Abuse, Doping, and Deception on Nike’s Elite Running Team” by Kara Goucher with Mary Pilon, published in 2023.
Born in 1978, the author grew up in New Jersey and the Duluth, Minnesota area. Goucher became a professional runner. Like many of her fellow athletes, the author– who experienced an early childhood trauma– found at a young age that competing in footraces is cathartic.
Goucher focused on her training and reaching the finish-line first, rather than getting all worked up about the numerous stressful situations she endured in everyday living. However, she rationalized away some of the wrongs committed against her, because speaking out against them would ruin her career, her marriage, her friendships, etc.
In the United States, the way runners go professional is to convince a corporate, non-governmental sponsor to pay them to race. Goucher and her husband both signed contracts with Nike, the monster-sized corporation best known for making athletic shoes. The company provided her and her fellow runners in her working group with the best, cutting-edge scientifically and technologically advanced resources for winning races.
However, the Gouchers’ status with Nike was as independent contractors, so they had less legal recourse than that of employees with regard to any illegal goings-on in their field of work. Their coach and immediate boss was the celebrity runner Alberto Salazar. In the single-digit 2000’s, he led the “Oregon Project” which was an attempt to help Americans win races again around the world; their victories had been woefully plummeting for years.
Salazar did boost Kara’s confidence and helped her perform better than she thought she could. But, his behavior and many of his training practices were inappropriate and illegal. He and his colleagues (an alleged psychotherapist and medical doctor) wielded a lot of power over the Gouchers, who owed their careers to their sponsor. Salazar’s underlings hewed to his training methods through fear and force. “He [Salazar] got testy when called out for having a third drink. I could only guess how he would react to being called out about sexual harassment.”
As a female, Kara had to deal with Nike’s double standard of suspending her pay when she ran an insufficient number of races in a specified time period pursuant to her contract. Male runners were punished this way when they got caught in doping scandals or had injuries. She was subject to those same conditions, but she couldn’t race because she was pregnant. In connection with exploring her career options, Kara wrote, “… I found myself again and again in rooms of male executives explaining women’s running to me. There seemed to be more interest in how I would look on a poster than in how the sport could evolve.”
Fighting “City Hall” in so many different areas of life is difficult. Anyone who attempted to do so in professional running in the single-digit 2000’s would have to deal with Nike. It held a near-monopoly with overwhelming power and influence over regulators. Whistleblowers would suffer doxing and death threats.
BUT, it is an age-old truism that when more and more courageous people come forward with firsthand information about wrongdoing by an institution or a particularly powerful individual– the less the harm that will be done in the future because the collective mood of the community will shift against the wrongdoer. Eventually.
Read the book to learn lots of additional details of the Gouchers’ experiences in their professional running careers– their trials, tribulations and triumphs.