The past steroid allegations against Sydney McLaughlin and Allyson Felix’s coach

An American sprinter claimed that coach Bob Kersee provided him with anabolic steroids before the Seoul Olympics. Yet in more recent times, doping suspicions have been more fairly directed at two sprint coaches favoured by the sporting apparel brand Nike.

American hurdler Sydney McLaughlin (left) alongside Allyson Felix (centre) and Dalilah Muhhammad (right) at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

“What are you taking in the way of anabolics?”

This was the question that coach Bob Kersee allegedly posed to the American sprinter Darrell Robinson at a Mexican restaurant in Long Beach, California, in October 1987.

“Anavar and Dianabol,” said Robinson.

“Very good, that’s what my people also take,” Robinson said Kersee responded.

Months later, Kersee allegedly provided Robinson with bottles of those same two banned anabolic steroids, Dianabol and Anavar, which were widely used by Olympic athletes at the time, after a dinner at Kersee’s home.

At least this was Darrell Robinson’s version of events, which Kersee strenuously denied, told to the German magazine Stern in a bombshell 13-page, paid interview in the autumn of 1989.

Thirty years on from these accusations, Kersee, who trains Sydney McLaughlin and the recently retired Allyson Felix, has become one of the most decorated coaches in track and field.

Coach Bob Kersee (left) and Allyson Felix (right).

Under Kersee’s tutelage, Felix has won a record 31 Olympic and World Championship medals. Combined, his athletes have won at least one gold medal at every Olympics since Los Angeles 1984. With Kersee’s succour, his wife Jackie Joyner Kersee, in the heptathlon, and Gail Devers, in the 100m, won back-to-back Olympic golds.

But it is Kersee’s expertise in hurdling that have led to perhaps his finest moments.

During the great Edwin Moses’ era of domination in the 400m hurdles, Kersee would linger near Moses at tracks worldwide, engaging the legendary hurdler in discussions about his technique, all with one goal in mind – to end Moses’ winning streak that lasted nine years across two Olympic cycles.

Eventually, Andre Phillips, who was coached by Kersee for seven years until 1987, ended Moses’ Olympic supremacy in the 400m hurdles at Seoul 1988.

And it is with this knowledge, honed over a life in track and field, in battles against Moses and the world’s greatest athletes, Kersee has used to transform Sydney McLaughlin into the most dominant athlete in the sport.

Since linking up with Kersee during lockdown in 2020, and moving west to California, McLaughlin has won gold at the Olympics and World Championships. She obliterated the 400m hurdles world record at the Oregon World Championships in such a seemingly trance-like state that it was reminiscent of a scene from the Jean-Claude Van Damme film Universal Soldier.

Her world record winning time, 50.68, would have placed her in seventh in the 400m flat final. She has lowered Delilah Muhammad’s world record, which she set when defeating McLaughlin at the 2019 World Championships, by 1.5 seconds in just three years.

When Moses commended McLaughlin’s running in Oregon, and her gladiator-like gaze in competition, Kersee apparently responded, “Well, I’ve been trying to beat you long enough that I should know what I’m doing,” he said.

But as with any long, decorated career, there will be ups and downs, moments of glory and despair. However, with Kersee, the lows, because of how low they were, have threatened to cast suspicion over his whole career, or at least split his career into two parts, despite both being hugely successful.

The first part, in the 1980s when Kersee was denounced as a “drug coach” by two of his athletes and his reputation was damaged by his close association with the much-maligned Florence Griffith Joyner.

The second part, the following thirty years, during which Felix and McLaughlin have covered themselves in Olympic glory without scandal. Over this period, only one of his athletes, Dawn Harper-Nelson, has failed a doping test.

In fact, such is the dearth of scandals in recent decades involving Kersee, suspicions are now more fairly directed at other American coaches, both favoured by Nike, who have been involved in more recent doping controversies. One of them is John Smith, whose management firm now represents McLaughlin’s rival Delilah Muhammad and Christian Coleman. The other is Dennis Mitchell, the coach of the Olympic and World Championship silver medallist Kenny Bednarek and formerly of Justin Gatlin, the unrepentant drug cheat.

But back in 1988 at the time of the US Olympic trials, the scrutiny over Florence Griffith-Joyner’s performances, and Bob Kersee’s coaching role could not have been more heightened.

When Griffith-Joyner blew away the field in the final of the 100m, it was Bob Kersee, in the aftermath of the event, who crept up behind her and hoisted her in the air in unadulterated jubilation. The pair, along with her husband Al Joyner, had just completed the mother of all transformations.

A transformation that a large part of the athletics world no longer believes was done clean.

Griffith-Joyner had gone from running 22.02 to win silver in the 200m at Los Angeles 1984, to running a world record of 10.49 in the 100m and 21.34 in the 200m on her way to double Olympic gold at Seoul 1988.

Her physique was transformed compared with four years earlier. Her voice deeper. All the happenings of an Olympic cycle during which she had to work as a part-time bank teller by day to fund her training.

Carl Lewis captured this widespread scepticism best.

“She made the transformation from being just another Olympian to one of the most incredible athletes in the world, a change too quick for imagination. Then there was her voice, much deeper than it had been”, wrote Lewis in his autobiography.

But soon conjecture turned into detailed accusations against both Griffith Joyner and coach Kersee. The source was an athlete who trained alongside Griffith Joyner, who was a member of Kersee’s UCLA training group, World Class Athletic Club.

In 1989, the sprinter Darrell Robinson told the German magazine, Stern, that Flo-Jo paid him $2,000 for 10 cubic centimetres of human growth hormone in the lead up to Seoul 1988. When the pair met at the UCLA track, Griffith Joyner reputedly wanted to know everything Robinson knew about anabolic steroids and their manufacturers.

In the same interview, Robinson said that Kersee told him he could get anabolic steroids for him. On one occasion, Robinson claimed that Kersee, and his wife Jackie Joyner Kersee, who won heptathlon gold in Seoul 1988, met him at a high school track and gave him a small bottle containing 100 oval-shaped pills.

Griffith Joyner denied the accusations vehemently. She called Robinson “a compulsive, crazy, lying lunatic.”

Kersee, acknowledged another meeting in his house, when Robinson alleged Kersee asked him about steroids, but the coach said Robinson had lied for money. He was paid $50,000 for the interview.

“There was a friendship. I loaned him some money when he had financial problems and co-signed his apartment, I never asked him to take any drugs and never gave him any. It all comes down to a matter of money. Anyone can say anything after the Ben Johnson situation.”

Nevertheless, soon after Robinson’s allegations, another of Kersee’s athlete would speak out. This time, unpaid, and part of a government hearing into drug use in Canadian athletics after Ben Johnson was disqualified from the 1988 Olympics.

Canadian sprinter Angela Bailey testified that she left Kersee’s UCLA training group in 1985 because he could not coach athletes who did not use drugs.

Before accepting a scholarship to UCLA in 1985, Bailey said that Kersee promised to train her even if she did not take anabolic steroids.

“I said that I’ve heard these rumours that he was a drug coach”, Bailey told the committee.

“The only reason I’m going to down to the United States (from Canada) is if you can make that me that promise that you can coach me without drugs”.

Once Bailey joined the Kersee group, she said that that she found it impossible to keep up with Kersee’s stiff training without steroids.

Kersee’s athletes trained hard each day, and Bailey was used to periods of recuperation between hard workouts. Steroids allow athletes to recover more quickly between training sessions.

“He didn’t know how to coach me because I was drug free”, alleged Bailey who left UCLA after six months.

These allegations against Kersee were, even if untrue, consistent with the mantra that anabolic steroid use was an open secret in track and field at the time.

The drugs mentioned by Robinson (Dianabol, Anavar and Human Growth Hormone) were revealed to be part of Ben Johnson’s steroid regime by Johnson’s coach Charlie Francis.

In Francis’ autobiography, the coach said that the Canadian discus thrower Bishop Dolegiewicz passed around Dianabol tablets in the Olympic village at the 1976 Montreal games. Dolegiewicz later admitted to his drug use.

Pat Connoly, Allyson Felix’s coach before Kersee, said that 40% of women athletes at Seoul 1988 probably used steroids.

But Kersee has always maintained he has never engaged in doping, “As you well know, I have been through allegations (in past years) of being a doping coach but… (it’s) 40 years later (and) everybody has passed the tests and has represented the United States and other countries.” Kersee said.

And Kersee is correct – ever since these steroid allegations, Kersee’s career has been devoid of scandal.

Only one of his athletes has failed a doping test this millennium; Dawn Harper-Nelson in 2017. His last athletes to do so before then were Andre Phillips, the 1988 Seoul Olympic 400m hurdles champion, and Greg Foster, a three-time World Championship winning hurdler, who both tested positive for the stimulant ephedrine over thirty years ago.

There have also been no question marks over the legitimacy of Allyson Felix and Sydney Mclaughlin’s performances. If anything, the only possible stain on the coach-athlete trio is Felix’s continued support of two-time drug cheat Justin Gatlin. Felix said about Gatlin in 2005, “He is my sidekick, we’re really close and we’re always there for each other and support each other”.

If there were concerns about Kersee’s earlier career, the latter half offers little.

So, for anti-doping authorities in search of the next doping bust in American track and field, Bob Kersee should be neither the first, nor the second, port of call.

Instead in recent years, there have been more pressing calls to investigate other American trainers in track and field.

In 2015, Victor Conte, the founder of BALCO Laboratories, who provided banned drugs to Marion Jones and Dwain Chambers, called on anti-doping agencies to investigate how the clothing brand Nike “forces” athletes to move to coaches who happen to have been embroiled in doping scandals.

One of the coaches mentioned by Conte was Alberto Salazar, the former coach of Sir Mo Farah. The other John Smith, the coach of former 100m sprint king Maurice Greene.

“I just have a hard time believing that Nike is not aware that not only coaches like Alberto Salazar, but I also believe that the strength coach John Smith needs to be investigated, and specifically because back in the day Angel ‘Memo’ Heredia (also known as Angel Hernandez) testified (in 2008-10 to the FBI and USADA) that he met with John Smith, the coach for (sprinter) Maurice Greene, in Houston about the use of drugs.”

Angel Heredia, was a key witness in the US federal government’s case against the former track coach Trevor Graham, who trained Justin Gatlin. Heredia testified that he had also supplied banned drugs to Maurice Greene. He provided bank records that showed that Greene had wired him $10,000 in 2003.

Conte, himself, said that he was forced to sign non-disclosure agreements while working with Smith.

Smith founded the track and field management agency HSI Sports Management in the nineties. The firm now represent 100m World Champion Christian Coleman, banned for anti-doping offences in 2020, and Sydney Mclaughlin’s rival Delilah Muhammad.

At least six HSI athletes have tested positive for banned substances with the most recent being upcoming Jamaican sprint star Brianna Williams, coached by former HSI athlete Ato Boldon, who failed a doping test during his own career.

Jamaican sprinter Brianna Williams outside the HSI Sports Management headquarters with her coach Ato Boldon (far right)

“What I know is Nike forces elite athletes to go with various coaches, including John Smith. I’ve talked with sprinters and Nike says you go with this coach and you go with that coach, and if you want a sponsorship from Nike we are going to dictate who coaches you. . . . I think you need to look at the relationships between Nike and Alberto Salazar and Nike as well as John Smith,” said Conte in 2015.”

Conte was proved right on both fronts.

In 2019, Alberto Salazar was banned for four years for doping offences. It emerged that Salazar had used Nike laboratories to calculate how much testosterone could be administered to athletes before it triggered a positive drugs test.

And, Nike has continued to send athletes to coaches with questionable pasts, including Justin Gatlin’s coach Denis Mitchell.

In 2019, Kenny Bednarek, the 200m Tokyo 2020 silver medallist, explained to LetsRun that Nike had told him to move to coach Mitchell despite the fact Mitchell had recently been caught on camera claiming he could obtain banned Human Growth Hormone for cash. Mitchell has previously admitted to Human Growth Hormone use during his own sprinting career.

“It kind of wasn’t my decision (on moving to Mitchell) but Nike wanted to send me somewhere. Once I found out I was going to him, I had no clue who he was so I kind of did my research and I was ok with it (Mitchell’s doping past),” said Bednarek.

In 2012, Nike sent Beijing 2008 double-bronze medallist Walter Dix and the Nigerian Blessing Okagbare to train under John Smith in Los Angeles.

Earlier this year, Okagbare received a ten-year suspension after testing positive for multiple doping substances.

Edmund Willison is a journalist focussing on doping and corruption in sport. You can follow him on Twitter @honestsport_ew or contact him at