What a Coach Wants

“My intention was what every coach wants—to advocate for my athlete. It was a physical race and when I saw the contact and the flag go up, I filed a protest.” – Alberto Salazar

When the Wall Street Journal spends 744 words covering a disqualification in a track meet (USA Track Reinstates Disqualified Champ Grunewald), there is obviously more at stake than whether a particular athlete broke a particular rule.

If you haven’t been following it, the case involves the final lap and ultimate results of the women’s 3000m at the US Indoor Championships last Saturday. With less than 200 meters to run, Gabe Grunewald, who was in third at the time, clipped the back foot of Jordan Hasay, who was in second, causing Hasay to break stride. Grunewald, who was accelerating, went by on the outside and went on to win the race, her first U.S. Championship, while Hasay faded to fourth. The contact between the two runners was flagged for review, but the initial review found no grounds for disqualification. Alberto Salazar, Hasay’s coach, filed a protest. It was denied. He appealed the decision, and the jury of appeals reviewed video of the race and then denied the appeal. What happened next is why the running community is all a-Twitter with accusations and counter-accusations, why the WSJ is spending time on the story, and why there still might be repercussions to USATF, the governing body for Track and Field in the U.S.

Briefly the question is whether, after the “final” ruling of no foul, USATF was influenced by corporate interests (Nike) to go outside its own rules and reverse the decision of a referee and Jury of Appeals in disqualifying Grunewald. That decision sparked protests and an explosion on social media. It was an ugly situation for the athletes involved, especially Hasay, who seemed the innocent victim of both the original contact and the subsequent actions taken by her coach and others on her behalf to protest the results. After a fraught 48 hours, Monday night brought more drama as Hasay released a statement withdrawing her protest, and USATF released a statement in which they reinstated Grunewald as the winner. But the story has not been put to rest. LetsRun.com, among others, is now demanding an investigation to determine whether Nike coaches or employees unfairly influence the appeals process.

But I don’t want to talk about any of that.

I want to talk about Salazar’s behavior after the race, and the questions it raises about the role of a coach.

There’s no question in my mind that Salazar’s reputation has been severely damaged by this incident, and that he is the biggest loser from how events have unfolded. Although Hasay must have had a hell of a last few days, her decision to withdraw has earned almost universal respect. Likewise for Grunewald, who became for a few days a populist folk hero (#FreeGabe) but has now been allowed to go back to being a simple national champion.

But Salazar has become the symbol of toxic coaching within the long-distance running community. The message boards are sagging under the weight of anti-Salazar sentiment, personal attacks, and unsubstantiated accusations. Some of this is unfair — the Internet being the Internet — but there is something right there in the open that needs to be considered: the coach’s extreme identification with the cause on an individual athlete to the point of bending, if not breaking the rules, and being blinded to the real harm done to the athlete for the sake of winning.

Although it was meant to be anodyne,  Salazar’s statement (above) sent a chill down my spine. The words sound so reasonable; surely, every coach wants to advocate for his or her athletes, to speak for them, to argue their case. Salazar was just doing what any coach would do.

Well, no. Not every coach would interpret the events in the 3000m as confirmation that there was a conspiracy against his athletes. Not every coach would take the results of that race so personally, that he would attempt to circumvent the rules in place for everyone else to have the results overturned. And finally, not every coach would be so caught up in righting what he perceived in the moment as a gross injustice to his athlete that he would fail to realize how his attempts to do so would put that athlete in an impossible situation. The coach rages and the athlete suffers.

I don’t think Salazar is a monster, as some have portrayed him, but I believe that, like many highly successful people, he has a monster inside him. All the good things that he has accomplished as a runner and as a coach, and all the bad things he has done to undermine those accomplishments, seem to spring from an immense insecurity and a view of the world that’s based on extreme us-vs.-them. Salazar appears to treat his favored athletes like family, and will do anything in his power to promote and protect them. That’s admirable, to a point.

But the dark side is that athletes do not always need protection; sometimes they need adult advice and the opportunity to figure out how to handle adversity on their own.

While I’m no Olympic coach, and I can’t possibly fathom the pressures of a person in Salazar’s position, I can say that I’ve been involved in dozens of incidents over the years in which athletes were or might have been disqualified, and I’ve been on both sides of these situations. I’ve had athletes disqualified for uniform and jewelry infractions, excessive celebration, cutting in too early, impeding other runners, etc. I’ve watched my athletes commit infractions that probably should have been flagged, but weren’t. I’ve filed protests on behalf of my athletes for such infractions and been denied. I have disqualified my own athletes (for running the wrong way on a cross country course), when other coaches told me not to worry about it. I’ve also been tempted to break the rules myself, to ignore some silly requirement or tell a white lie, for example, entering an athlete in a JV cross country race under the wrong name.

As a coach, you’re constantly struggling to find the balance between “advocating” for your athletes and maintaining your own integrity and the integrity of the sport. At the end of the day, I think what guides you is that your actions ought to be in the best interests of your athletes, not in the narrow sense of securing a victory in a race, but in the broader sense or preparing them to live in the world with their heads held high.

Caught up in the intense emotion of that race and its disappointing, perhaps unfair, outcome, Salazar crossed a line, and became an advocate in the narrow sense and his athlete’s worst enemy in the broader sense.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for the past thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. About a dozen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past eight years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, MA. I've been writing for as long as I've been running. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and after a two-year hiatus, began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. In my experience, writing about running is way harder than running itself. I also still have a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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