Eva Timoney / Gavel Media

The Dark Side of Pro Running: Mary Cain Exposes the Nike Oregon Project

Since her early high school career, distance runner Mary Cain has dominated the track and field scene with a series of record-breaking performances. In 2012, Cain won the USATF Junior 1500m Championships and went on to set the national 1500m record at the IAAF World Junior T&F Championships the following year. Soon after, she was the youngest athlete ever to run for Team USA in the World T&F Championships, making her one of the fastest female runners in the country. At just 17 years old, Cain was an unstoppable force in the running world.

Cain’s immense talent caught the eye of many people across the country, including famed track coach and decorated U.S. marathoner Alberto Salazar. In 2013, Salazar invited her to join the Nike Oregon Project, one of the most prestigious running programs in the world—an opportunity the vast majority of talented runners could only dream of.

However, soon after beginning her elite career, Cain’s health began to rapidly decline. Now 23 years old, she reveals the dark side to training with one of the best teams in the world by sharing her experiences of harassment and abuse as a Nike Oregon Project athlete.

In a New York Times video essay, Cain reflects, “I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike.” She explains how the all-male coaching staff was convinced that in order for her to improve, she had to become “thinner, and thinner, and thinner.” As a result, Cain was pressured to follow a strict diet and maintain what Salazar called an “ideal performance weight” of 114 pounds. When she didn’t meet this dangerously low standard, Cain was humiliated and criticized.

The pressure to maintain a low weight and a low body fat percentage combined with an extremely rigorous training program, placed a significant burden on Cain’s body. It reduced her bone density and estrogen levels to extremely low levels, causing her to lose her period for three years and break five bones. The constant scrutiny of her weight and appearance also had detrimental effects on Cain’s mental health, leading her to develop an eating disorder and struggle with suicidal thoughts. Rather than receiving medical attention, she was told that she needed to “get over it.”

Cain’s decision to share her story has prompted other athletes of the now-disbanded Nike Oregon Project to come forward. Kara Goucher, an Olympic distance runner who trained under the same program with Salazar until 2011, recalls a similar toxic culture of abuse and body shaming in which teammates were weighed against one another.

Salazar, recently banned from track and field for four years due to doping charges, presents a different side of the story. He outright denies Cain’s claims, saying he "supported her health and welfare.” In response to the situation, Nike also released a statement describing these allegations as “deeply troubling” and promising to “launch an immediate investigation.” 

The abuse Cain endured is not merely the result of a few corrupt coaches, but rather, a larger systemic issue in women’s sports. While Salazar is gone, the culture that turned a blind eye to his behavior still remains. 

Cain describes how she “got caught in a system designed by and for men, which destroys the bodies of young girls.” She refers to the fact that expectations for athletic achievement are based on the linear male performance curve, which fails to recognize the natural plateau in performance which is typically experienced by females as their bodies adjust to the changes of adolescence.

An intense training program based on patterns of male development—like the one Cain endured—places significant stress on the female body. This puts female athletes at a high risk for injuries and is a principal factor in the phenomenon of "burn out,” which causes them to shorten their running careers due to health complications. 

While multi-billion dollar corporations like Nike are able to profit off of the success stories of young female athletes, the athletes themselves pay the ultimate price. When these women become overexerted, they are essentially “disposed of” and replaced by the next batch of talent. Through this devastating cycle, society focuses on the next up-and-coming stars while forgetting about those who faded away. 

Although Mary Cain is just one of many standout athletes beaten down by the appalling “win at all costs” culture of athletics, she asserts that her story is not one of victimization and defeat. In an NPR Interview with Michel Martin, Cain says that she hopes to be out on the track again in 2020 and show the world that it is possible to bounce back from difficulties. 

In the meantime, a system that protects female athletes must be established. Until athletic communities are able to hold coaches accountable for prioritizing health over performance, these women will continue to face institutionalized harm.

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