|American track athlete, Mary Cain, in a recent New York Times "Equal Play" video|
See the end of this post for the text of today's recent New York Times "Opinion" piece by Mary Cain. Click the link to the NYT site to view the video.
Mary Cain, 23, is an elite American runner who started winning national races while still a teenager. After graduating high-school she joined Nike's famed Oregon Project under world-renowned runner and coach Alberto Salazar.
While with the Oregon Project Cain had a number of good races, but many felt that she hadn't lived quite up to her potential; her personal best times all date from 2013 or 2014.
It is not unusual for teenage athletes to fail to live up to their potential. Elite distance running for both men and women is incredibly competitive, and athletes of any age gain or fall back relative to their peers for a variety of reasons.
But Mary Cain now alleges that it was the Oregon Project that was responsible.
This of course may very well be true. Even the best coaches or training regimes may not be right for everyone. While Salazar and the Project had a number of apparent successes, training world champions Galen Rupp and Mo Farah, among others, they also have had their share of disappointments or "failures" including Mary Cain.
The Oregon Project was recently forced to shut down amidst blood-doping allegations, and Salazar has been suspended from coaching for four-years. Salazar and other principles have denied the charges.
Salazar may be guilty of involvement in blood-doping. Or not. But as a younger athlete he was a hero - arguably the greatest runner the United States ever produced. See an earlier post I wrote about his extraordinary story - When a Catholic Gutted it Out to Win the Most Exciting Boston Marathon in History.
Now Cain is alleging that she was physically and emotionally abused by the coaching techniques of Salazar and others with the Project. She was "weight-shamed" and an extreme emphasis on being thin led her to break five bones. She became emotionally distressed due to the abusive atmosphere and began "cutting" herself. Salazar, she claims, was indifferent to her distress. She told her parents and they urged her to take the next plane home. And so on.
She also claims that the Project was tailored to men and the requirements of men's bodies and was indifferent to the different requirements of women to the point of being physically destructive.
Salazar has denied most of her specific allegations.
I have absolutely no idea whether those claims are true. I certainly wouldn't be surprised to learn that they are at least half-true. Nike's Oregon Project, even before the recent scandal, had a reputation for being incredibly intense, with elite athletes living and eating together in a quasi-artificial and high-pressure environment. Nike and Salazar wanted to win. Many of their athletes did win and win big.
Nike (and perhaps even Salazar) may not exactly have had the overall "wellness" of their athletes in mind. Or not. Again, I have no idea.
But one thing I can be fairly certain of is that Nike or Salazar would not have intentionally trained its male or female athletes (each of whom they spent a great deal of money on) in a way calculated to destroy their ability to successfully compete. That's just common sense. Of course, they may well have simply erred or misjudged the best training methods for one or more of their runners. It happens, though, again, keep in mind that the entire point of the project (with its high monetary costs) was geared towards winning.
But here's the point. Elite coaches for elite athletes always make extraordinary physical demands. Depending on the sport, some of these demands may even be "damaging" in to the emotional or even long-term physical health of their athletes.
Also, some coaches are bastards.
Whether that's "right" or "wrong" is not the point.
Men, and more and more recently, women have been experiencing all of this since competitive sports were invented. But in most cases for, unless one was living in a communist country, there was always a sort of solution: If you don't like your coach, if you feel that he or she is not right for you for whatever reason, find another one. At the extreme, if you're on a team or whatever and switching coaches is not an option, then stop competing.
I'm not trying to sound like a tough guy, here. Bad or bastard coaches have ruined careers, as well as other things. I'm against this.
Or you might just have a non-bad or non-bastard coach who is not right for you.
And of course, illegal drugs, blood-doping and other sorts of cheating have been a scourge in many sports (though in fairness, it's very often the athletes themselves, not the coaches, that drive this).
Also, of course, I'm talking about adult athletes, not children.
Mary Cain, an adult, albeit a young one, chose to stay with the Oregon Project for years, even when it was allegedly prescribing for her illegal and physically damaging drugs. It didn't work out for her, competitively and (she now alleges) emotionally or physically. But now, at the precise point that Salazar and the Oregon Project have been cast, rightly or wrongly, as the bad guys, she's jumping on the bandwagon.
They harassed me. They abused me. It's sexist. It's their fault.
They weight-shamed me.
I'm a "strong woman" say some who are not.
But of course the vast majority of elite female athletes are strong women.
Brigid Kosgei, who in the most recent Chicago Marathon beat the 16-year standing women's marathon record by 81 seconds, is a strong woman.
Emma Bates, the 1st-place American (4th-place overall) in that same race is a strong woman. With a time of 2:25:27 she would have beaten the male winner of the 1948 Olympic Marathon by 7 minutes.
Manuela Schaer won the female wheelchair category in 1:41:08. She would have beaten the top men's wheelchair time just a few years ago. She is a strong Swiss woman.
Mary Cain is a fragile flower.
From the New York Times, 10/7/19:
I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike
Mary Cain’s male coaches were convinced she had to get “thinner, and thinner, and thinner.” Then her body started breaking down.
By Mary Cain
Mary Cain became, in 2013, the youngest American track and field athlete to make a World Championships team.
“Equal Play” is an Opinion video series showcasing the insurgent athletes who are dragging women’s sports into the 21st century. The article below is by Lindsay Crouse.
At 17, Mary Cain was already a record-breaking phenom: the fastest girl in a generation, and the youngest American track and field athlete to make a World Championships team. In 2013, she was signed by the best track team in the world, Nike’s Oregon Project, run by its star coach Alberto Salazar.
Then everything collapsed. Her fall was just as spectacular as her rise, and she shares that story for the first time in the Video Op-Ed above.
Instead of becoming a symbol of girls’ unlimited potential in sports, Cain became yet another standout young athlete who got beaten down by a win-at-all-costs culture. Girls like Cain become damaged goods and fade away. We rarely hear what happened to them. We move on.
The problem is so common it affected the only other female athlete featured in the last Nike video ad Cain appeared in, the figure skater Gracie Gold. When the ad came out in 2014, like Cain, Gold was a prodigy considered talented enough to win a gold medal at the next Olympics. And, like Cain, Gold got caught in a system where she was compelled to become thinner and thinner. Gold developed disordered eating to the point of imagining taking her life.
Nike has come under fire in recent months for doping charges involving Salazar. He is now banned from the sport for four years, and his elite Nike team has been dismantled. In October, Nike’s chief executive resigned. (In an email, Salazar denied many of Cain’s claims, and said he had supported her health and welfare. Nike did not respond to a request for comment.)
The culture that created Salazar remains.
Kara Goucher, an Olympic distance runner who trained with the same program under Salazar until 2011, said she experienced a similar environment, with teammates weighed in front of one another.
“When you’re training in a program like this, you’re constantly reminded how lucky you are to be there, how anyone would want to be there, and it’s this weird feeling of, ‘Well, then, I can’t leave it. Who am I without it?’” Goucher said. “When someone proposes something you don’t want to do, whether it’s weight loss or drugs, you wonder, ‘Is this what it takes? Maybe it is, and I don’t want to have regrets.’ Your careers are so short. You are desperate. You want to capitalize on your career, but you’re not sure at what cost.”
She said that after being cooked meager meals by an assistant coach, she often had to eat more in the privacy of her condo room, nervous he would hear her open the wrappers of the energy bars she had there.
A big part of this problem is that women and girls are being forced to meet athletic standards that are based on how men and boys develop. If you try to make a girl fit a boy’s development timeline, her body is at risk of breaking down. That is what happened to Cain.
After months of dieting and frustration, Cain found herself choosing between training with the best team in the world, or potentially developing osteoporosis or even infertility. She lost her period for three years and broke five bones. She went from being a once-in-a-generation Olympic hopeful to having suicidal thoughts.
“America loves a good child prodigy story, and business is ready and waiting to exploit that story, especially when it comes to girls,” said Lauren Fleshman, who ran for Nike until 2012. “When you have these kinds of good girls, girls who are good at following directions to the point of excelling, you’ll find a system that’s happy to take them. And it’s rife with abuse.”
We don’t typically hear from the casualties of these systems — the girls who tried to make their way in this system until their bodies broke down and they left the sport. It’s easier to focus on bright new stars, while forgetting about those who faded away. We fetishize the rising athletes, but we don’t protect them.
And if they fail to pull off what we expect them to, we abandon them.
Mary Cain is 23, and her story certainly isn’t over. By speaking out, she’s making sure of that.