By: Patrick Larson
Going against my best judgement, I decided to watch Nike’s Big Bet that chronicled the rise and fall of Alberto Salazar. Was it worth the watch? Eh, not really. If you’re someone who has at all paid attention to Alberto Salazar, there was very limited new information that came to light through this documentary. If anything, about half the documentary was spent glorifying Alberto, Nike, and the Oregon Project. If you’re tired of hearing the name Alberto Salazar and don’t particularly want to watch a bunch of middle-aged men discuss whether or not he cheated, then I’d recommend just reading this article instead.
Some quick takes from the documentary:
1. Where are the female commentators?
The documentary featured the likes of Ken Goe, Jonathan Gault, Weldon Johnson, Chris Chavez, Malcolm Gladwell, among others. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with having any of these men add their commentary on the matter, it is a bit concerning that director Paul Kemp was unable to find ANY female voices to feature in the doc. There was a good 10 minutes in the doc where various men all give their thoughts on Alberto’s treatment of his female athletes and the pressure he would put on his athletes to lose weight. You’re telling me you couldn’t find one female runner or journalist to weigh in on this issue? It’s truly incredible that everyone involved in the making of this documentary got to the end of it and felt ok about just how many men were providing opinions on female experiences.
2. Alberto’s got 99 haters but Malcolm Gladwell ain’t one
I was truly taken aback by Malcolm Gladwell’s insistence that Salazar didn’t in fact cheat but instead was just an extreme competitor who would do whatever it would take to win. Toward the end of the documentary he says, “It is so typical of the dysfunction of track and field that we will bring down the house on someone operating at the margins. You’re going to bring down the hammer on Alberto Salazar on something that is so complicated that I can’t even follow half the arguments on Alberto Salazar.”
I’m not sure how much Alberto paid Gladwell to say this, but it wasn’t enough. Gladwell is choosing to ignore all of the allegations, reports, and evidence stacked against Salazar that have ultimately resulted in a four year ban from track and field. Instead, he is claiming the whole situation to be living in this gray, confusing area. While there is no doubt that Salazar toed the line with what was legal and illegal, opinions like Gladwell’s only serve to further the narrative that Salazar was this ultra-competitive, win-at-all-costs coach instead of a cheater, abuser, master manipulator, and asshole.
Malcolm, if you’re reading this blog post, maybe take a look at the following links that might help you understand that what Alberto did was cheating and not in fact just track being dysfunctional. Track has other dysfunctions to worry about, this isn’t one of them.
At this point, we shouldn’t be surprised. Gladwell has been a Salazar apologist for some time now. In a 2020 interview with LetsRun he said “I’m actually a fan of Salazar in the sense that I think he is a brilliant coach and I’m not convinced that all of the bad things said about him are true.”
But hey, you don’t become a New York Times Bestselling author by providing the world with lukewarm takes.
3. Alberto Salazar asked someone to house sit for someone, so therefore he is clean
At one point in the documentary, former Oregon Project member Ben Andrews stated that Alberto would ask him to housesit for him on multiple occasions. During his time housesitting, Andrews says he never saw anything suspicious and “there was no mention of, I don’t want you to go in this room.” For Andrews, that was enough for him to conclude that Al Sal is clean. Why the fuck would someone hiding anything doping related tell you to not go in a room or look in a certain drawer? That would be a dead giveaway that he is hiding something!! Honestly I’m never too surprised when someone defends Alberto, but this is just blatant ignorance to the situation and using one anecdote to prove someone’s innocence. Ben is choosing to live in a fantasy world that ignores all the other reports and allegations that have come to light in the last two decades.
4. Its ok to believe that Nike has done good things for running while also believing that they are complicit of a laundry list of misgivings
Thankfully, the documentary spent an incredible amount of time glorifying Nike and everything they’ve done in the sport (sarcasm). Listen, I wear an egregious amount of Nike gear and am a pretty firm believer that the sport is better with Nike in it. However, just because Nike has pumped millions and millions of dollars into the sport doesn’t mean we can’t also harshly criticize them for being guilty of covering up and protecting people like Alberto Salazar and Lance Armstrong. At one point in the documentary, Chris Derrick was interviewed about his experience as a Nike athlete and his view on what Nike has done for the sport by supporting things like Nike Cross Nationals. I really didn’t understand the purpose of this in the documentary except for trying to make us feel bad for criticizing Nike. Derrick says “Nike is dedicated to the sport of track and field.” Ok, great—but they’ve also been proven to wield their influence in ways that have really negatively impacted the sport.
If I were you, I’d skip this 90 minute film that really should be retitled: “Malcolm Gladwell and his other middle-aged male friends talk about Alberto Salazar.” There was nothing new to come from this documentary, and it gave far too much credence to the idea that Salazar did nothing wrong.