Professional runner Mary Cain has made international headlines this week by exposing the abuse that she endured from Nike and her former coach, Alberto Salazar. Cain was starved, experimented on, and verbally abused by the Nike Oregon Project, in order to reach an arbitrary weight, of 51.8 kilograms (114lbs), that Salazar made up.
Mary was the World Junior Champion in the 3,000 metres, the youngest American ever to make a World Championship team (at 17 years old), had placed ninth in the world in the 1500 metres at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow, and broke American Junior records (under-20) in the 800 metres, 1500 metres, and the indoor mile. She joined Nike as a freshman in college and moved to Portland, Oregon, to train full time, so she could be the best female athlete ever. Instead, her dream turned into a nightmare.
Alberto Salazar instilled into Cain’s head the idea that in order to be fast, you have to be skinny. This theoretically makes sense, since if you are skinnier, you have less weight to carry; but actually, this is objectively false. At a certain point, muscle breaks down and the athlete’s performance is negatively impacted. In Mary’s case, she developed RED-S Syndrome and lost her period for three years. If a woman loses her period, it leads to the loss of hormones needed to maintain bone health. Mary broke five bones while competing under Salazar.
While racing under the Nike Oregon Project, Cain knew something was wrong. In her opinion piece for The New York Times, she said, “In my head, all I was thinking of was not the time I was trying to hit, but the number on the scale I saw earlier that day.”
Cain resorted to self-harm and developed suicidal thoughts. She told her sports psychologist and coaches about her self-harming, and instead of getting her the help that she clearly needed, they said that they were “tired” and went to sleep. In professional sports, if an athlete is injured physically, they are believed by coaches and treatment is sought out. I wish the same could be said about mental health in sports. This is when a light bulb went off in Mary’s head and she knew that she was living in a sick and twisted system.
Mary admitted, “I wasn’t even trying to make the Olympics anymore. I was just trying to survive.” She quit the Nike Oregon Project in 2015.
This is just coming to light now, but unfortunately, it is not the first time that coaches or people in power within the athletics community have exploited their athletes for their performance. I have been running competitively for the past ten years and I have both experienced this kind of pressure and seen my close friends go through it. I want to not only bring this issue to light, but I also hope to encourage those who are enduring trauma, in any sport, to realise that there is more to life than suffering for the limelight and competition.
The atmosphere surrounding track and field, in general, has its perks, but the problem surrounding weight management is definitely not one of those perks. I wish that monitoring weight only happened in professional sports, but there is a trickle-down effect that seeps its way into the brains of high school athletes.
In high school, I was nurtured in a community of hardworking teammates and dedicated coaches that had nothing but their athletes’ best interests in mind. Every day, my coach asked everyone, “Have you eaten enough food today?” and “How much water have you drank?” If we said anything lower than what he expected of us we were sent home, and rightfully so. The job of a coach is to keep their athletes healthy above all else, especially in school sports where children’s lives are ultimately at stake.
After I graduated, I moved 4,000 miles from my safe haven in north-central Florida to St Andrews to pursue education, and I continued my involvement in athletics. I showed up and quickly took notice that the team did not have a head coach like the one I was used to. Instead, twice a week the coaches from Fife Athletic Club train the St Andrews athletes on the track. Basically, five out of the seven days in the week, I was training myself.
Meanwhile, first-year University life was quickly catching up to me and I gained 3.2 kilograms in the first three weeks I was in St Andrews. Instead of blaming my unexceptional times on the shift in my training, I attributed it to my weight. I stopped eating like I should for over a year. My times did not change for the better, but instead my life changed for the worse.
I experienced a stress fracture in my ankle and cartilage damage in my knee because my bones were not strong enough to endure the constant impact of my feet on the pavement. A bout with depression ensued and I thought I would never run again. After becoming borderline anaemic, I knew that I had to change the way I was living and that was my a-ha moment. I know that my situation and the systematic abuse that Mary Cain went through are different, but no one, especially teenagers, should have to worry about weight when they are already health.
Cain claims that to combat this problem, there should be more women in power in the sport of track and field, as professional runners compete in a “system designed by and for men, which destroys the bodies of young girls.” I could not agree with this statement more. I have friends who have left the sport because they were not cared for by their coaches and were taken advantage of by the system.
Coaches need to be more vigilant of their athletes and customise their training plans. Contrary to popular belief, teenage girls cannot train at the same intensity as women in their mid-twenties whose bodies have finished developing and have trained at the professional level for years.
Another rehabilitation needed in our sport is the reorganisation of Nike as a corporation. Salazar was suspended from the sport lsat month for doping allegations and the Oregon Project was shut down as a result. Company CEO Mark Parker will be stepping down in January 2020. These reforms are a result of the doping scandal, not because of the abuse that was given by Salazar and swept under the rug by Nike.
Nike is the god of the track and field world: 63% of gold medalists from the 2019 IAAF Athletics World Championships were endorsed by Nike. Activists within the sport, like Alysia Montano and Allyson Felix, have spoken out about corporate oppression and their unacceptable experiences with Nike. Although it may be difficult, the only way that this issue can be recognised and changed is if people join together and speak out.
Usually, men are pressured to be muscular and built, but for some men, the thought of being and staying skinny is all that runs through their head.s. There needs to be a drastic change within the athletics community, where people must realise that there is no blanket “ideal” weight for athletes and everyone’s bodies and needs are different.
Psychology and sports need to exist together. Cain was weighed in front of teammates and shamed if she wasn’t hitting her weight. This twisted behaviour should never have happened. The Nike Oregon Project’s psychologist and some coaches were hired because they were Salazar’s friends. Sports psychologists are critical, as there is a vital mental component in all sports. In track and field, the mental aspect drastically outweighs the physical aspect. When told that an athlete is not good enough, they will begin to believe the claim and eventually their performance will reflect this. Positivity and comradery need to play a bigger role in the athlete/coach relationship.
No matter your gender, or what sport you participate in, you deserve to enjoy the competition and to not be controlled by the firm hand of mental abuse. You should never have to worry about what you eat or how much weight you have to lose because someone else said so. Health needs to be put before the pursuit of performance. Do not be a puppet in anyone’s sick, twisted game. We all deserve more than that. In conclusion, thank you, Mary Cain, for showing us all that just because athletes love to compete and to win, it does not mean that we need to lose our happiness and health for it.