[TW: This article discusses disordered eating, self-harm and suicidal ideation.]
“I was the fastest girl in America, until I joined Nike,” reveals Mary Cain, a former high school track superstar, in a disturbing New York Times video op-ed (New York Times, “I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike” 11.07.2019). Cain graduated from Bronxville High School in 2014 with an impressive resume. She holds national high school records in the 800m, 1500m, 3000m and 5000m. She broke the junior world record in the indoor 1000m and won the 3000m world junior championship. She competed at the 2013 IAAF world championships, a professional meet, as a high schooler. Cain was extraordinary.
She decided to go pro at the age of 17 with the Nike Oregon Project (NOP), an elite team boasting some of the best distance runners in the world, created and funded by Nike. The head coach of the project, Alberto Salazar, was an accomplished marathoner himself, and coached many great athletes during his career, including Olympic medalists Matthew Centrowitz, Galen Rupp and Mo Farah. Joining his team was a no-brainer for the best high school runner in the country. But against everyone’s expectations, Cain did not get faster under Salazar and his team’s oversight. She actually got slower.
After running a 4:04.62 1500m and 1:59.51 800m in high school, her times got worse each season she was with the NOP, regressing considerably to 4:10.84 and 2:08.50, respectively, by 2016, the last year she competed for the NOP. This steep drop seems puzzling, considering she had all the resources of a professional runner and was working with a coach that is considered to be one of the best out there. Then, on November 7th this year, the answers fell into place. Cain came forward with her story in a NY Times op-ed.
In the piece, she explained that the all-male coaching staff at the project told her “If you want to get better, you need to get thinner, and thinner, and thinner.” Not only was she encouraged to lose weight, but “[Salazar] would weigh me in front of my teammates, and publicly shame me when I wasn’t hitting weight,” she said. He would even go as far as instructing her to take certain drugs (some of which are banned in her sport) to catalyze her weight loss. She also described him screaming at her after a race in 2015, saying she “clearly gained five pounds before the race” in front of all the other competitors (a claim backed up on Twitter by many athletes in attendance) (Twitter, @ jmarpdx), 11.07.2019). This isn’t just tough love or bad coaching—this is fully-fledged abuse.
Coaches are integral to success, especially in running, where the relationship is personal and a coach’s input is so directly related to the athlete’s performance. He decided to use this position of power to berate, publicly shame and mentally manipulate her.
Body image issues are frequent among athletes, particularly female athletes, possibly causing major physical and psychological damage. To exploit an anxiety so common in young female athletes is just plain despicable. Cain developed RED-S syndrome, a type of eating disorder which stems from a lack of sufficient nutrition, causing an athletes body to break down.
Cain lost her period for three years, and her bones weakened to the point where she broke five of them. Additionally, this abuse had devastating effects on her mental health. She began to self-harm and experience suicidal ideation. When she told Salazar this, he neglected to inform any medical professional or Cain’s family. Equally as concerning, she said other members of the staff saw her self-harming and did not intervene to help. No one reached out, spoke up for her or even asked if she was alright.
All of this highlights a bigger problem in the world of sports: Men still hold too much power in women’s sports. The NOP staff was all-male, despite working with many female athletes. Wouldn’t it make sense to have a few of the people coaching women’s sports be, I don’t know, a woman? As an athlete myself, I think having coaches who bring different perspectives to the table is very valuable. Echo chambers, an all-male staff in this case, are breeding grounds for problems. Female athletes frequently work with all male coaching, training and medical staffs—and while not all men act like Alberto Salazar, this does highlight a lack of representation and limits the perspectives athletes have access to.
The most concerning thing about the NOP though, is that they didn’t have a single certified nutritionist or sports psychologist on their team. Instead, the staff consisted of Salazar’s buddies, who bent to his will. This made it so there was never any accountability for Salazar, and athletes like Mary Cain didn’t have access to the opinions and suggestions of certified medical professionals.
Salazar has been banned from the sport for four years and the NOP was subsequently disbanded. But, these were not consequences of Mary Cain’s mistreatment—instead, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) found that Salazar, who has been accused of doping violations for years now, was trafficking testosterone as well as tampering with tests and withholding information. Doping is a huge problem in sports, but its importance pales in comparison to eliminating the abuse that is so common in women’s sports. Her coach and his staff, the very people who were supposed to help her be healthy and successful, instead bullied, degraded and abused her. Salazar should also be punished for his mistreatment of Cain.
Nike will probably try to create a nearly identical program with the same type of coaches sans the doping allegations. This cannot happen. We need to speak out and ensure that the next time a program like this is created, there are more outside doctors and nutritionists involved, and that there are channels by which athletes can safely report and be taken seriously, ultimately removing any person found guilty of abuse. Salazar could not have caused so much damage if he wasn’t surrounded by a bunch of yes men and given unscrutinized control of the athletes. All those working on his staff, as well as Nike itself, were complicit in this abuse.
Nike has since released a statement where they subtly victim-blame Cain, saying, “These are deeply troubling allegations which have not been raised before by Mary or her parents before,” and adding that she tried to rejoin the program earlier this year (The Oregonian, “Amid Cain Allegations, Kara Goucher Slams Nike Investigating Itself” 11.15.2019). Nike has also begun an “investigation” which is being conducted internally. That’s a great idea, have the people who are at fault conduct an investigation about themselves. This investigation reeks of corruption.
Mary Cain is a hero for bravely speaking out about such a painful issue. Now that she has come forward, it is our duty to ensure that we adequately respond. She didn’t come forward because she wanted the spotlight—she came forward hoping that her story would force a legitimate outside investigation into this matter and hold people like Alberto Salazar accountable. We must not forget her words and experiences, and we must pressure both companies like Nike and the sports world as a whole to reform their ways. Mary Cain did her part. Now it is time we do ours.