Opinion: Cain incident will linger in sport culture

By Ellen Siefke | Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of yahoo.com
Track runner Mary Cain revealed that Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar and his staff abused her physically and emotionally.

An already messy situation surrounding Nike and now-suspended running coach Alberto Salazar became even messier when Mary Cain, a former athlete of his, made public allegations of physical and emotional abuse against Salazar and his staff.

On Nov. 7, the New York Times published a video in which Cain described a culture of abuse and weight obsession that she endured while working with Salazar and the now-defunct Nike Oregon Project after joining as a 16-year-old phenom.

“I joined Nike because I wanted to be the best female athlete ever,” Cain says. “Instead, I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by (Salazar) and endorsed by Nike.”

Cain alleges that Salazar and his coaches fostered a system in which female athletes’ bodies were demeaned and belittled. For her part, she says, Salazar came up with an “ideal performance weight” of 114 pounds and then relentlessly pushed her to stay there, shaming her in front of teammates if she didn’t make weight. For example, after a poor performance in 2015, Salazar told her she “clearly gained five pounds.” 

The pressure to maintain weight, combined with the abuse from the entire coaching staff, led to self-harm, suicidal thoughts, disordered eating, missing her period for three years and five broken bones, she said.

Salazar has denied most of Cain’s claims, stating that he did not pressure her to maintain weight and that her parents were heavily involved with her training.

“To be clear, I never encouraged her, or worse yet, shamed her, to maintain an unhealthy weight,” Salazar said to The Oregonian. “Mary at times struggled to find and maintain her ideal performance and training weight.”

However, Cain’s allegations were corroborated by other Nike teammates like Cam Levins, who tweeted that coaches were “obsessed with (her) weight, emphasizing it as if it were the single thing standing in the way of a great performance.”

Olympic 10,000 runner Amy Yoder Begley said that Salazar told her she “had the biggest butt on the starting line” and often belittled her in front of teammates.

Olympian Kara Goucher, known for being outspoken against Salazar and Nike, said that after finishing the 2011 Boston Marathon — a race in which she ran a personal best time six months after giving birth — Salazar told her husband and family she was still too heavy to run fast.

Even Steve Magness, an assistant coach from 2011-2012, said Salazar’s fixation on athletes’ weight contributed to his departure.  

The allegations come amid upheaval within Nike. Salazar already faces a four-year ban for doping violations, his Nike Oregon Project was officially dissolved last month and Nike CEO Mark Parker will step down in January.

So where does Cain’s video leave us? Salazar has been banned and his team dissolved. What more can we do with this situation? 

Well, I think it’s a point of departure. These changes largely surround doping and fail to address the issue here: the treatment of athletes, especially female athletes, in the running world. What makes this issue difficult is that, no matter how you spin it, weight does matter. Up to a certain point, the lighter you are, the less weight you carry and the faster you can run. 

The problem is that weight is a surface-level issue. You could be at your “ideal performance weight” and still perform poorly. Sleep and recovery, nutrition, strength and mobility, confidence and much, much more all play a role. That number on the scale gives only a small indication of how an athlete is doing.

But with the pressure to compete comes the temptation to fall into this trap. When your livelihood depends on how you race, weight can be an easy factor to use to control performance. Since other training changes like nutrition and strength take time to take effect, looking to weight can help manage the pressure to win now.

With this in mind, it’s not hard to imagine why eating disorders or body image issues run rampant, pardon the pun, within the running community. As a lifelong distance runner, I have known several teammates who dealt with these issues, and I myself have faced similar struggles.

To be sure, body image is an issue across the board, but I can only speak as a female athlete. The issues Cain raises are important ones to discuss if we want to advance further as an athletic community in nurturing and developing athletes who are strong and well-rounded, physically and mentally. 

Athletics are a wonderfully complex endeavor, and I can attest to both the joy and the heartbreak they bring. Nevertheless, unless we focus on these complexities, stories like those of Mary Cain will not disappear.

I can only hope that the running community — and the realm of sports — can learn from her account and start having these conversations, seeking to foster their athletes in body and in mind.