By Amy Tennery
CHICAGO, Oct 11 (Reuters) - The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has praised the decision to shut down the Nike Oregon Project (NOP), saying on Friday it was a necessary step after the elite distance running program's leader, Alberto Salazar, was suspended for doping violations.
Nike on Thursday shuttered the famed program, with its stable of elite competitors who added to the company's authority in the world of distance running, calling it a "distraction" for its athletes.
Salazar was given a four-year doping ban by USADA on Sept. 30 but has denied wrongdoing and plans to appeal.
USADA CEO Travis Tygart said shutting down the NOP program was "the right thing" to do.
"Now let’s hope they accept that mistakes were made and truly commit to clean sport and the health, well-being of athletes," he said.
Nike declined to comment on the USADA statement but reiterated that the decision to fold the NOP was done "to allow the athletes to focus on their training and competition needs.
"This situation including uninformed innuendo and unsubstantiated assertions has become an unfair burden for current OP athletes," a Nike spokesperson said. "We will continue to support Alberto in his appeal."
The decision to close the program came two days before the Chicago Marathon, with NOP athletes Galen Rupp, the race's 2017 champion, and women's contender Jordan Hasay among the favourites.
Hasay, who was coached by Salazar, said she found out about the shutdown on Thursday but was staying "laser-focused" on Sunday's marathon.
"That was unfortunate news," said Hasay. "I don’t know if it was to be expected but it is what it is."
Neither Rupp nor Hasay have been accused of any wrongdoing.
Despite the void left by the closure of the Nike program, analysts said the company should be able to weather the controversy with its brand relatively intact.
"I’d call this a minor sprain for Nike," said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising.
Regarding the company's competitors, he said that while the controversy "may help Adidas continue to close the wide earnings gap," Nike still reigns supreme.
"Nike still dominates the running category, sponsors the large majority of top track and field athletes, and makes shoes that people want." (Reporting by Amy Tennery; additional reporting by Melissa Fares in New York; Editing by Ken Ferris)