Vern Gambetta is afraid he comes off as a grouchy old man. He's not that old. And those statements about lifetime bans for drug cheats and Nike Oregon Project's "innovations"? That's straight shooting from a guy who might be the most influential person in sports conditioning today.
His CV is beyond impressive—director of athletic development for the New York Mets, pioneered the conditioning program for the Chicago White Sox, assistant conditioning coach for the Chicago Bulls, and the No. 1 conditioning man for the U.S. men's soccer team and tennis great Monica Seles, consultant with the San Francisco 49ers, the Kansas City Chiefs, the San Jose Sharks, the Australian women's softball team, co-author of the coaching certification program for USA Track & Field, author of seven books, and on and on. Nike didn't put the air in Michael Jordan—Gambetta did that.
He may not know diddly about how to throw a slider, but he can build and maintain an athlete with the strength and athleticism to do so. Gambetta is an unapologetic physical educator, and he's very, very good at what he does. That's why he was hired by Nike Oregon Project, Alberto Salazar's distance running group, in January 2005 to keep the horses fit, frisky, and ready to crush 7 x 300 meters with a 300-meter jog, or similar. NOP and Gambetta parted ways inside of six months.
Since he's a virtual fire hose of information on conditioning for any sport, I hardly knew where to start. I suggested his experiences with Nike Oregon Project. The only subject he said he didn't want to talk about was his experience with Nike Oregon Project. When we got one the phone, well, it was all we wanted to talk about. What follows is his half of our conversation, a very frank and revealing look inside the Nike running factory.
"What is best for Nike is not what's best for the sport [of track & field]. I'm very, very disturbed by the control they have within USATF.
"In track and field, cycling and swimming, I feel there is no gray area in terms of what's fair and ethical. It's black or white; you're a druggie or you're not. It's as simple as that. Some people are in a dark gray area. Say 50 is the threshold for illegality: They're going to do everything in their means to be at 49.999. They're always trying to find something new to give their athletes an edge. They called it innovation; I called it cheating. Flirting on the edge, looking for gimmicks—I have no tolerance for people who operate that way. Certainly sound nutrition and things like that are valid, but to put all your time and energy into looking for ways to artificially boost blood or in some way get an edge—I call that stupid coaching. Put your attention into areas where you know you'll get results rather than chasing voodoo science. Sure, it takes longer. It's as simple as this—do the basics really, really well. Then, as an athlete advances, build complexity into their program, more training and more specific to the athlete and his event. It takes time, there are no shortcuts. To build an elite athlete is both simple and complex because it's got to be very individual. Things like nutritional drinks are useful supplements, but that's different from trying to find fringe methods. If I can go buy it in the store, that's not a problem to me. If I can't, that's a problem.
"Very honestly, everybody in the sport knows the drug coaches. And it's not those supported by just one shoe company. Everybody knows it, but nobody will speak out because of fear of libel. It's going to take some balls, that's for sure. And the federation [USATF] is complicit. I mean, Jon Drummond is prominent on all the USATF committees. If we were serious about cleaning up the sport, that would not be the case. Somebody at USATF is protecting these people—that's why Drummond is still there. I think coaches should be liable as well as athletes, and there should be a lifetime ban, absolutely.
"Sorry, I'm all fired up here. I mean, once you take one of those substances, you get an edge. If you're caught and banned for two years, that gives you two years to train unimpeded. Justin Gatlin is just one who's come back and with two years of training, he's winning everything. Most of these people have been caught multiple times. It makes no sense. We're condoning cheating. We're sending the message to young athletes that you'll just get your hand slapped. Nearly everybody in Tyson Gay's group has been caught, and they're back competing.
"Some of this is the down side of professionalization. Huge amounts of money are available now, as compared to the 1970s and '80s, and it's changed the sport. On balance, the changes have been positive. There are clean coaches working on long-term athlete development but there's a cancer in the sport and it needs to be treated. You can be the best in the world without drugs, without that gray area. Ashton Eaton [gold medalist in 2012 Olympics, world record holder in decathlon and heptathlon] is a classic example. He's as clean as clean can be. He just pays attention to every detail of training, and his success didn't come overnight.
"I know some people are suspicious of East Africans because of lax testing there, and I'm not naive to the possibility that when they started winning and agents came into the picture, they may have introduced drugs. But African ascendance has been coming for a long time, since the 1966 Commonwealth Games. Socially and culturally, there's a lot of incentive for them to train hard and get good, plus genetics, so I'm not as suspicious of Africans. Certainly, they raised everybody's expectations in distance running, and there's been a push in this country to improve quickly. We have to be more patient. We didn't grow up in the same society. It's going to take our athletes longer to get to the point where they can compete at that level."