Malicious masseuse or innocent scapegoat? Inside the strange Chris Whetstine story

In fall of 2019 news broke that many track and field fans had believed for years to be true: Alberto Salazar, former American record holder and current head coach of the Nike Oregon Project coach– a position in which he oversaw an incredible American resurgence in the distance events, both on the track and on the roads-  had broken doping rules. A 4-year ban was handed out. Alberto Salazar vehemently denied any wrongdoing, but the case was already over- in fact, he’d already had his appeal denied, and the NOP training group was subsequently folded.

I’m not going to highlight the whole case, as it’s terribly messy. I do, however, want to talk about a guy whose name has popped up repeatedly- a massage therapist by the name of Chris Whetstine. Chris has had an interesting history with Nike –we’ll get back to that in a bit– but his involvement in the Salazar controversy goes as follows: this past fall, Salazar wrote an 11,000 word public rebuttal to the various charges a BBC investigation had levied. While he denied much of the report, he admitted that, yes, it was true he had tested testosterone creams on his sons, and had in fact done so in the Nike labs. It’s hardly a leap to assume this experiment could allow one to ascertain the length a substance stays in a runner’s body. The end-goal in this situation (hypothetically, of course) would be to ensure an athlete could then time micro-doses while still being able to clear drug testing windows. But no, said Salazar, the real reason he tested testosterone on his sons was because he was scared that Galen Rupp, Salazar’s star runner, multiple Olympic medal winner, and training partner of British superstar runner Mo Farah, had been ‘sabotaged’ by his physical therapist. Salazar wrote the following:

On May 9, 2009, Galen Rupp’s University of Oregon 4×1 mile relay team set a new NCAA record. Shortly after the race while talking to the press, Galen felt someone rubbing his shoulders. He turned around and it was Chris Whetstine. Galen had heard the stories. He was extremely concerned and called me. I called the USADA hotline to report it. USADA may still have the tapes or notes of my call. Nothing came of it but it caused us grave concern.’

Galen had heard the stories about Whetstine, wrote Salazar. What rumors was he referring to? For that, we need to go back to 2006.

From 2004 to 2006 Justin Gatlin sat atop of the sprinting world. In 2004 he won Olympic Gold in the 100, and in 2005 succeeded in the double of 100/200 meters at the world championships in Finland, with his victory in the former being the largest winning margin ever. 2006 began with Gatlin tying the world record in the 100m. Then, after he pulled out of a much-anticipated showdown with Asafa Powell- whose record he had equaled– a day later it was announced he had tested for ‘testosterone or similar.’ This was Gatlin’s second failed drug test -he had also failed tests in 2001 for amphetamines, but eventually had his 2-year international race ban recinded after proving the substance had been a result of his ADHD medicine. Now a lifetime ban loomed. But Trevor Graham, Gatlin’s coach (more on Graham later) offered a defense that might sound familiar to you at this point: Gatlin, Graham claimed, had been sabotaged by his trainer. That trainer? The one and only Chris Whetstine.

According to Graham, Gatlin had been on his way to doping control following his participation in the 2006 Kansas relays when Chris Whetstine appeared and insisted he pull Gatlin aside for a quick massage.

The specifics of that incident, according to Graham, via ESPN:

Whetstine then pulled a tube out of his pocket with a crooked “S” on it and applied the cream to Gatlin’s inner thigh and the back of his knee.

“I walked over to him and just gave him this look like, ‘What the hell is going on?'” Graham told “He turned his back and kept turning around. So we went on to doping. I looked back at Chris and Chris is packing up his table real fast, trying to get out of there.”

Whetstine adamantly denied the claims, and many defended him, including none other than fellow Nike coach Alberto Salazar, who called Graham’s story ‘preposterous’. He also drew attention to the fact that Gatlin and Graham had continued to work with Whetstine in the weeks following the supposed event.

“Trevor is a world-renowned, legendary coach,” Salazar said. “Right then and there, if he sees somebody acting strange and putting something in his pocket, he’s going to put a stop to it and figure out what the heck is going on. It wouldn’t go any further than that. And Chris would never get close to Justin again.”

It’s important to note that Gatlin accepted the eventual four-year ban and never joined in publicly blaming Whetstine for what had happened. To this day he maintains his innocence. Furthermore, Gatlin’s attorneys actively distanced themselves from Graham’s comments. And Whetstine was not some random trainer- he was well known, and had worked with top athletes in multiple sports, along with celebrities such as P. Diddy. Would he risk his career to spite an athlete? Regardless of the veracity of the sabotage claims, however, the damage had been done.

A few days after the positive test, but before the news of it had been announced publicly (although Nike would have been aware of it) Whetstine attended the USA Outdoor Championships in Indianapolis. There, according to court documents, he was allegedly beaten by an inebriated Nike employee, Llewellyn Starks, who was a sports marketing rep for the company. Starks is a former track and field athlete who is best known for an awful injury- note, do not click this link if squeamish. Both Nike and Starks denied the 2am incident happening, and it should be noted no charges were filed. However, that evening Whetstine was taken to a nearby hospital and treated for a broken nose, a dislocated thumb, a sprained ankle and a concussion. According to Skye Griffin, the detective on the case, there existed footage of the incident, and it had been a one-sided affair following a confrontation: “It was clear that the Nike person was the aggressor…it was an assault, not a fight. I don’t even know that the massage guy threw a punch.” Eventually the parties settled out of court with Whetstine. The suit had been for 3.9 million.

Whetstine did eventually return to work, and just three years later found himself in what must have been a sickeningly familiar situation. Let’s return to that previous quote from Salazar, in which he explained why he had tested an illegal substance on his sons:

Shortly after the race while talking to the press, Galen felt someone rubbing his shoulders. He turned around and it was Chris Whetstine. Galen had heard the stories. He was extremely concerned and called me. I called the USADA hotline to report it. USADA may still have the tapes or notes of my call. Nothing came of it but it caused us grave concern.

Less than three years prior, Salazar had been vocal in his defense of Whetstine, and now in 2019 he was saying that Whetstine had done –yet again– the very thing Salazar had previously said Whetstine had not done.

So what now? Well, we can narrow the likelihood of what may have happened down to three potentials:

  1. Whetstine sabotaged at least one, if not both of his athletes
  2. Whetstine is innocent, and Salazar and or Graham spearheaded a smear campaign on an innocent man.
  3. All parties are guilty and in on the doping cover-ups in one way or another.

We’ll never know the truth in this case, unfortunately.

In 2006 Trevor Graham was banned from US Olympic Training Facilities, and his contract with Nike was terminated. In 2008 USADA gave Graham a lifetime ban from the sport. Shortly after, Graham filed an unsuccessful $30 million lawsuit for slander against USADA.

All in all, 8 of Graham’s athletes have tested positive for or received bans for performance enhancing drugs. Following the infamous BALCO investigation, Graham was convicted of lying about his relationship with a steriod dealer. It was also revealed that it had been Graham who in 2003 had anonymously sent a sample of ‘ The Clear,’ the then-untraceable designer steroid made famous by Barry Bonds, to USADA, which in turn jump-started numerous doping scandals.

In 2016 Graham made a post on his social media alluding to a massive conspiracy that existed to punish him for his whistleblowing:

For everyone’s information sprinter Justin Gatlin did not test positive they made it all up to destroy me and I can prove it.
I have a lot more to come including prescriptions of a coach purchasing performance enhancing drugs. This coach and all these individuals that I have mentioned will be at the Olympic Games coaching

Was Salazar the coach Graham was hinting at? If so, it would fit the timeline of the NOP investigation and further cement Graham’s whistle-blower status.

Justin Gatlin served his 4-year ban and returned to the track, where he has improved his PR (miraculously, it seems, given his age) and won multiple world and Olympic medals. In 2017 Gatlin beat Bolt for gold in the 100m at the World Championships (it would be Bolt’s final race) and was in turn booed by the crowd. In 2o19 he took silver in the 100 meters at the World Championships. At just a few months under 38, Gatlin is the oldest sprinter to ever podium at the world championships.

It should be noted that Gatlin still maintains his innocence, and that many noted figures have expressed doubt in his guilt, including Jeff Novitsky, who said the following while under oath: “Again to the best of my ability, and as I have testified before, throughout this case, I have not obtained any evidence, despite these hiccups and despite these concerns, looking back now historically, I have not obtained any evidence of [Gatlin’s] knowing receipt and use of banned substances.”

In documents obtained by 3wsports, Justin Gatlin’s mom admitted in court she had to stop her husband from attempting to kill Trevor Graham in 2004 after read an article stating his son had tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. After grabbing his gun, he attempted to leave the home and track down Graham. The disaster was narrowly avoided when they noticed the date on the article: it was April 1st, and the article was a joke. Two years later, however, the article would become a reality. The question here is why Gatlin’s dad had not stopped to question the veracity of the doping claims made in the article, but instead immediately rushed to attack Graham. What did Gatlin’s dad know?

Then there is the BALCO case, in which Victor Conte admitted Trevor Graham had direct knowledge of doping occurring. While many including Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery were implicated, as far as I have read Justin Gatlin was not mentioned as being aware of ongoing doping related to himself.

It should also be noted that there are other characters of interest in the Gatlin case, including Randall Evans, an assistant coach who, according to Whetstine, reportedly had purchased Testosterone in Mexico and then transported it back to the States (his wife was a duel citizen and in the FBI, thus it was entirely legal for him to do so, he reportedly told Whetstine). Sometime later, Evans gave Gatlin what he told him were B12 vitamin shots for his injured hamstrings.

To our knowledge, Chris Wetstine never publicly responded to Salazar’s claims, and he is not active on social media.

For an in-depth look into the investigation and subsequent proceedings refer to the following links:

BBC: Alberto Salazar: The inside story of Nike Oregon Project founder’s downfall

Oregon Live: Capriotti: Nike’s hot-tempered track chief makes waves

Wire Sports: Just Gatlin, and a run for redemption

ESPN: Inside the masseur-with-a-grudge conspiracy theory

Daily Mail: Questions over Alberto Salazar testosterone rebuttal after he called claims Justin Gatlin was sabotaged by masseur Chris Whetstine ‘preposterous’ in 2006

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