The Broken Culture That Broke Mary Cain
Runner and sports historian Victoria Jackson on Nike's Oregon Project, Alberto Salazar, and abusive coaching
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Mary Cain is speaking out. But will her story—and her message—bring about needed change?
In a New York Times video essay published last week, Cain, a former high school track phenom who competed in the 2013 world championships at age 17, claimed that she was physically and emotionally abused while training with Nike’s Oregon Project, a now-defunct track and field training group run by coach Alberto Salazar.
According to Cain, she was told by coaches in the program that she would have to become “thinner and thinner and thinner” in order to win races—and that Salazar would “usually weigh me in front of my teammates and publicly shame me” if she weighed more than 114 pounds.
Cain also claimed that Salazar attempted to give her birth-control pills and diuretics to assist with weight loss.
As a result of Salazar’s abusive coaching, Cain said, she missed her period for three years, broke five bones, and developed an eating disorder that prompted suicidal thoughts.
Cain joined the Oregon Project, she told the Times, because she “wanted to be the best female athlete ever.”
“Instead,” she said, “I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike.”
Following publication of the Times essay, Nike said that it would investigate Cain’s allegations of abuse.
The Oregon Project, which was based in Portland and owned and operated by Nike since 2001, was shut down in October after Salazar was given a four-year ban by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for experiments with supplements and testosterone that were bankrolled and supported by Nike, along with possessing and trafficking testosterone, a prohibited performance-enhancing substance.
Also following publication of Cain’s essay, other runners and individuals within track and field—including former Nike coach Steve Magness, who worked under Salazar—have spoken out on social media and to Sports Illustrated supporting her contention that the Oregon Project had a toxic and abusive culture.
… they were not surprised by Cain’s revelations and that they saw it as part of a wider culture that encouraged excessive weight loss in the name of performance and perpetuated the idea that “thinner meant faster”. Many had lost their periods at points.
One athlete, who wished to remain anonymous, said her coach had deliberately bought race uniforms in “small” sizes so that athletes felt pressured to fit into them. “If I look at them now, I’m absolutely horrified,” she says. “I hope to God I never fit into them again. They are like a child’s clothes.”
Holly Rush, a former marathon runner who competed at the European Championships and Commonwealth Games in 2010, told the Sunday Times that she:
… suffered from eating disorders during her sporting career and did not have periods for eight years from the age of 20. By 22, she had been diagnosed with osteoporosis in her spine and osteopenia in her hip, consequences of her weight loss. “If you’re looking tired or gaunt, that was always a great thing,” she says.
She said the fact that she wasn’t having periods was perceived as a good thing because “it didn’t hamper my training”. She knows of many athletes who are told to lose weight. “I’ve heard stories of people being weighed at sessions, which is appalling,” she says. “It’s just degrading, will make you feel worse and then you restrict even more and overtrain even more. It’s a horrible cycle. Anyone who goes to a training camp or session where that happens needs to walk away.”
Just how common are stories like Cain’s? Will her coming forward encourage track and field to take a harder look at—and a harder stance against—abusive coaching and an unhealthy, dangerous culture around athlete body weight?
To get a better sense of why Cain’s claims resonated so deeply and what needs to change going forward, Hreal Sports spoke to Victoria Jackson, a history professor at Arizona State University and former collegiate and professional distance runner who has been outspoken on Twitter and elsewhere about athletes’ rights.
(The following conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity).
Hreal Sports: You were a NCAA Division I distance runner. So was your sister. As far as I can tell, you’re still plugged in to the running community. When you first saw Mary’s story, was was your immediate reaction?
Jackson: Oh, goodness. We all knew there was something wrong with the Nike Oregon Project—because those of us who competed, both collegiately and professionally over the last 15 years, we all know somebody involved with it.
[Oregon Project runner] Dathan Ritzenhein, I knew him since high school. I didn’t know him well. But we went to the national high school cross country championships together. My senior year, he won and I placed second. He was one of those athletes who was known for his ability to push himself more than anyone. We all would be amazed at how he would run to the point of collapsing. That was all before he joined the Oregon Project.
After Mary’s story came out, I went back and read about a leaked interim report from the USADA [United States Anti-Doping Agency] into the Oregon Project. Some of Dathan’s testimony was in it. He talked about how he was going to be suspended by Nike because he was injured. I had heard rumors [as a professional runner] about Nike athletes being told, ‘you are underperforming, you have to join one of our programs.’
So I think Dathan knew that he kind of had to do this stuff—take hormones and medications and drugs to please Alberto. He knew that Alberto could go to his boss at Nike and say, “Dathan is working really hard and he is getting back on a path where he’s world class. You don’t have to suspend his contract.” That’s the messaging Dathan received. And the program has a secretive nature. The athletes in the Oregon Project were not even allowed to tap to each other about what types of medications they were taking.
So you have a rotten culture. What Mary describes is a system of emotional and physical abuse. Athletes already are pushing themselves so much to begin with. And then to throw a teenage girl into that and expect her to excel instead of being broken by it?
The nature of distance running is pushing yourself and building a tolerance to pain, building a capacity to kind of transcend pain. It’s kind of what we do. And that holds the the potential to turn rotten—maybe more so than in other sports. I think this is a moment of reckoning for the elite running community. Rather than looking the other way, or enabling coaching staffs and collegiate athletic departments and other people who have jobs despite building rotten cultures, maybe we should be doing something about them in order to get them out of the sport.
Mary said that Nike “is not acknowledging the fact that there is a systemic crisis in women’s sports and at Nike, in which young girls’ bodies are being ruined.” Is she right, and if so, how and why?
I don’t know. That gives me pause. There is so much power—the potential for power for girls who engage in the sport is so rich. But that means creating a culture so they can tap into that power in a positive way.
At Nike, I think we can point to specific structural issues, like the fact that they were suspending contracts of people who were injured. That reinforces the potential for bad behavior. If you are economically dependent on people who are doing things that are putting athletes in harmful situations—like the medical stuff Salazar was doing from the USADA report, having runners on medications where there is a literal warning that if you take these two types of medications at the same time, the risk of heart failure is really hight, and also they are prescription medications, and yet Salazar is giving out both and he’s not even a doctor!—then that is a serious problem.
My professional introduction to Nike was at the 2006 track and field championships in Indianapolis. It was my first meet as a pro wearing a Nike kit. I went in there with blinders on, trying to focus on how I had signed with the coolest company in the world. And then I read about how at that meet a Nike employee beat up a massage therapist because—and I don’t know if they believed this or were trying to create a cover story—the therapist supposedly massaged [performance-enhancing drugs] into Justin Gatlin.
Oh, and another time one of the coaches with the Brooks Beasts track club was also threatened by a Nike employee at a USA Track and Field outdoor championship. That is not a cool culture.
I do think part of the reason that athletes have been reluctant to speak out about problems with Nike is that in our sport, Nike is USA Track and Field and USA Track and Field is Nike. And I don’t know how much USA Track and Field listens, anyway. My first time at a meeting organized by them as an elite, professional athlete was at a rookie camp in Cancun, [Mexico]. I went to that and then to a USA Track and Field annual meeting, and you literally had USA Track and Field employees shouting down athletes trying to bring up legitimate issues with the sport because they didn’t want to have a conversation. So there is something rotten there, too.
As far as Mary saying there is a crisis in girls’ sports, just thinking about it historically, there is a problem with young girls in that—as a society—we don’t know what to do with athletically excellent young girls. There’s a tension in elite youth sports: we have girls who already are at a level where they could theoretically be competing on a world stage, but all of the stuff that comes with that, all of the potential pressures, it’s virtually impossible to navigate the obstacle course of that. Yet we assume that it’s just what someone like Mary should do—and hopefully, she makes it out on the other side.
I don’t know the solution to that conundrum. But it’s certainly not throwing girls into an elite training situation that is also harmful.
I went back and read a  New York Times magazine profile of Mary. She started running really fast as a freshman in high school—qualifying for the world junior championships, breaking an American junior record, kind of scratching at world class. She couldn’t really have training partners wit her high school girls’ team. Could she train with the boys’ team? It turned out that was a violation of New York high school federation rules. That rule might have been adopted with good intentions. It might not have been. Who knows? But Mary had no one to run with on her team. The article also said that her high school coach—for reasons no one would talk about—didn’t even prescribe workouts for her. She just made them up on her own.
So then Alberto Salazar calls her house. She’s somebody who isn’t being coached, has nobody to train with. Then she gets a call from a guy who says he can help. In the moment, he is heaven sent. It only turns out to be tragic in retrospect.
Mary recalls arriving in Oregon to train with Salazar at age 17. She’s coached by an all-male staff. She says that they told her in order to better her performances she needed to become "thinner and thinner and thinner." She also says that Salazar would publicly shame her in front of teammates if she did not weigh 114 pounds, and even attempted to give her birth-control pills and diuretics to assist with weight loss.
As someone who has been in and around the culture of elite running, why would any of that be considered a good idea?
It’s not! Lauren Fleshman—who is a former Nike athlete and is now a coach with Oiselle—Tweeted something that is so obvious yet needs to be said.
At the bottom she wrote, “weight fixation is lazy coaching.” I would argue that it literally is not coaching. The idea that Alberto Salazar was the world’s best coach for the word’s best company? We’re now seeing that is Nike marketing. There is not a real basis for that. If anything, the fact that some of his athletes were actually able to survive and succeed to do what they did is an amazing testament to them!
Like I said before, in our sport’s culture, we celebrate the pushing of ourselves and the pain that comes with it. And that can be great if done in a healthy way. But it has such potential to turn into something rotten so quickly. I can think of a handful of college programs that I heard about when I was in college where the coaches were abusing the athletes in this way. Telling them they had to lose weight. Weighing them in front of their teams. Buying uniforms that were too small and forcing bodies into them. Yelling at their athletes.
We didn’t say it was abuse. But it totally was. And I really feel for the athletes who end up in programs where the coach is creating this sort of culture. Let’s say ou are a sub-elite high school runner. You don’t have your pick of where to go to school. Your family has financial stress. So you go to the school that offers the most money, and this school has one of these negative cultures. You’re now in college, and you’re trying so hard to not let it get to you. It’s hard to transfer. You are tied to the program because they offered you money. How do you survive that?
Mary Cain @runmarycainThis was a long time coming. For years, I felt broken and alone- I waited, yet no one reach out to help. Now I am ok. But the system isn’t. And I can’t stay silent. This was hard to share, so thanks @lindsaycrouse & @nytimes for all your support. ❤️ https://t.co/9jyreuYKJ0
In what ways are athletes in general, and runners in particular—especially when they are young—mentally and emotionally vulnerable to the kind of abusive and unhealthy coaching that Salazar seems to embody?
It’s hard to generalize, so I don’t know if I have an answer to that. As a runner, I always found myself admiring and jealous of the runners who didn’t have these vulnerabilities, who still had balanced, healthy relationships with running and also well-rounded lives.
I do think there are parallels between excellent young athletes and young people who are prodigies in anything, the demands placed on those young people, and how we don’t know what to do with them.
I remember playing violin. I played in an orchestra. And I played with people who aspired to become the equivalent of runners for Nike, but in classical music. We were just in middle school, and already they were developing carpal-tunnel syndrome and had to wear wrist braces. They had the expectation of practicing hours and hours and hours a day. I don’t know if that is healthy at all.
In Mary’s case, the demands placed on her and the mental and emotional abuse she suffered didn’t actually make her faster or better—they badly hurt her physically and mentally.
So from a purely devil’s advocate, sociopathic, winning and performance-based perspective, I still have a hard time understanding why she was treated the way she was treated. Nobody even got the supposed short term benefit of her becoming a better runner! Not Mary, not Nike, not Salazar. She just got destroyed.
Is there some sort of unspoken cultural understanding within elite running that we have to subject athletes to abusive training, and that some will thrive on the stopwatch, and others will be totally crushed, and so be it, that’s just the way it is?
I think there are people who believe that. Yes. There are people who have consumed everything about this story and will walk away thinking, “well, Mary Cain just didn’t make it. Too bad. She got a shot and her body couldn’t handle it. Alberto was trying to help her. That is what we do in our sport. It churns people up and it spits them out and the ones who make it are excellent and that is just what this is.”
First of all, that’s not ethical. It’s horrifying. But also, the science of running doesn’t back it up. People have created this myth about what they believe about what it takes to win, and they want to defend it, but it has no basis in reality. It’s a win at all costs mentality, without the winning!
And you see it in the day-to-day decisions that athletes make, too. I’ll check in with them when I speak at colleges. I’ll ask, “have you been injured in the last 12 months?” And 95 percent of the hands go up. Then I’ll ask, “did you feel sad when you were hurt?” Every hand stays up. It is so hard when your identity is tied up in that. As athletes, we want to push and push and push. You feel miserable and sad when you can’t. That doesn’t mean we should.
I’ve felt that way myself. Say I have a nagging injury or am feeling lethargic. I might know, deep down inside, that I’m about to overtrain. That overtraining will make my body shut down, and it will take months for me to recover. But I really want to run today! It’s so bound up in my identity. I need those endorphins. I’m irritable, I’m pissy, I don’t like myself, my body feels soft—I want to run today for that short-term jolt of feeling good.
I used to joke that when I was recovering from an injury, I would go on angry marathon bike rides, because I was pissed off I wasn’t running. But the whole reason I was doing that was because there was a number of times I could have taken a day off from running and didn’t, because I chose the immediate benefit of running. I’ve spoken to other runners and they feel the same way.
It can be so hard to say no to that. To say no to that for your future self. To have that discipline. And that is why we need coaches to protect us. It is so important to have a coach who is your champion, who makes those really hard long-term decisions for you. A coach who knows that a super-talented athlete training at 85 percent is better than one who is broken from having redlined for too long.
Mary Cain says that “I got caught in a system designed by and for men, which destroys the bodies of young girls.” She also says that “we need more women in power. Part of me wonders: if I had worked with more female psychologists, nutritionists, even coaches, where I would be today.” Is she right?
I think she’s right about Nike and Salazar, specifically. It was gendered there. All the people who enabled it were men. And in college, you do end up with men coaching a lot of the combined gender sports programs like track. The people who make hiring decisions in athletic departments are more likely to hire men to coach across genders—the assumption is that men won’t want to be coached by women. It’s also the case that the women hired into supporting coaching roles are paid less. So women often leave. If you are a poorly-paid grad assistant or post-collegiate runner who is volunteering, you’re probably not going to stay in coaching.
That being said, men and women who coach should know about young women athletes’ bodies and normal changes and what a healthy body looks like. Part of that means pretty dramatic bodyweight fluctuations in the course of a week! They should know about the female athlete triad.
[Hreal Sports note: According to the National Institutes for Health, the female athlete triad is an interrelationship of menstrual dysfunction, low energy availability—with or without an eating disorder—and decreased bone mineral density that is relatively common among young women participating in sports. Diagnosis and treatment of this potentially serious condition is complicated and often requires an interdisciplinary team].
If we think about young athletes, especially ones going from high school to college, they are undergoing a number of changes. One, biological changes in their bodies. Two, the pressure of elite sports. If you feel all these changes in your life and you feel out of control, that is when you see disordered eating habits. Athletes turning to restriction of their food as the one thing they can control in their life. And also to harm themselves—I know I shouldn’t be doing this, but I feel badly about myself so I will hurt myself.
If you don’t have a nutritionist on staff who understands what a teenage woman’s body looks like or a teenage athlete’s body looks like, a healthy body, that’s a problem and it can contribute to this. And it’s not just a problem for women—there is as much disordered eating in male distance running communities as with women.
Let’s talk about your story. When you were an undergrad at the University of North Carolina, you stopped competing in track and cross country after two years because of disordered eating. What happened?
I was very fortunate. I was in a healthy culture that saved me from myself.
My depression and eating disorder were separate from my love of running. I developed anorexia when I was nine years old. I stopped eating. I was hospitalized when I was 10. I didn’t know what it was. My mom told me. I literally walked to the public library to read what it was. Didn’t learn from TV or teammates or cultural signals.
I was depressed, and I think restricting my eating was a way to hurt myself. That transition from high school to college was another trigger. I was lucky to have healthy teammates and a good culture at Carolina. Two of those teammates, Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky, are now making these cookbooks that I think are so important and part of the solution to this. They’re providing education to young runners that food is fuel, and food is health, and food comes from a place of love. They’re creating wholesome, positive energy around cooking and eating with people you love. I needed that when I was struggling.
And how that Shalane is transitioning into coaching, I know she’s creating a healthy culture at the Bowerman Track Club. That training group all qualified for [The Rio Olympics]. So they are kicking ass, and doing it from a healthy place. It’s not a coincidence. Success flows from culture. It’s not the winning; it’s making sure people are okay. And the the winning comes from that. But also, who cares about winning? You have these great relationships.
Going back to Mary’s story—the reaction from the running world and from the public at large was, I think, momentous. It seemed to me like an outpouring of support, and also of other people stepping forward and saying this is the tip of the iceberg. Did you get that same sense, and is this the tip of an iceberg?
I think so. I think a lot of people thought this kind of abuse is just part of the sport. But because of the way Mary spoke so powerfully, and used specific language, and didn’t dance around it but called it what it was—people are thinking about their own experiences and realizing what it really was. That it was harmful, that it was not okay, that it’s not inherent to the post. That sports do not have to be that way.
And this is happening in the broader context of conversations we’ve all be having the last few years. This awakening to abuses of power and power dynamics, inside and outside of sports.
Nike took a lot of criticism—and I think rightfully so—for their statement in response to Mary’s story. Let me read it:
“These are deeply troubling allegations which have not been raised by Mary or her parents before. Mary was seeking to rejoin the Oregon Project and Alberto’s team as recently as April of this year and had not raised these concerns as part of that process. We take the allegations extremely seriously and will launch an immediate investigation to hear from former Oregon Project athletes. At Nike we seek to always put the athlete at the center of everything we do, and these allegations are completely inconsistent with our values.”
Olympic runner Kara Goucher blasted Nike, writing on Twitter that the company was victim-shaming Mary. I think she’s right! What did you think of Nike’s response?
I’m glad you brought that up. To me it signaled, okay, there has not been a corporate culture change at Nike. Not yet. Because this did not get before someone who understands what it is like to be a victim of abuse. It came from a bully culture. If you have put out a statement like that, you clearly have not thought about Mary Cain as a person. You’re in defensive mode, and you’re going on the attack.
Nike says it will investigate accusations of abuse. What level of confidence should any of us have that it will be a real, hard-nosed, find-the-truth investigation, and not just a way for Nike to bury a bad story and avoid any potential legal liability?
It’s gotta be an independent investigation. It can’t be USA Track and Field. It can’t be Nike themselves. They have to hire an outside firm with no connections to the company, the culture, the sport. I think that is the only way to have a legit investigation.
I have no idea if we will see that. There has to be ongoing pressure from the outside. From what I understand, Nike won’t do that on their own.
Essentially, Mary was whistle-blowing. You’re a historian. History teaches us that things usually don’t turn out well for whistle-blowers, no matter how right they are or how important their message is. Mary says she plans “to be running for many years to come.” Is she going to be ostracized in the running world going forward?
It certainly helps that Alberto is serving a four-year ban [for doping violations]. He can’t be around track meets. And I think there will be a rallying around Mary. I hope so.
Thinking about, historically, all the high school girls who were cast aside when they didn’t make it through, all the people whose names we have forgotten—well, the running community hasn’t forgotten those names. And I think that even people who are skeptical about Mary’s story—and they shouldn’t be!—I think they have the awareness that you can’t go after somebody who has shared that this has happened to them. I think potential critics will keep that to themselves. That would be good. It will crate a space for those who will embrace and help Mary if she continues to compete.
One more thing that really stood out to me about Nike’s response—because it reminded me of something we’ve seen in stories of physical and sexual abuse brought to light by the MeToo movement, something we’ve seen in stories about surviving and escaping cults, something we’ve seen across a wide spectrum of human existence. Nike noted that Mary was trying to rejoin Salazar and his Oregon Project this spring. Why? Well, Mary wrote that:
“I wanted closure, wanted an apology for never helping me when I was cutting, and in my own, sad, never-fully healed heart, wanted Alberto to still take me back. I still loved him. Because when we let people emotionally break us, we crave more than anything their very approval.”
I feel like this is the key psychological dynamic to all of this. That the core abuse here—the core betrayal of trust here—is the twisting, manipulating, and hijacking by Salazar, by other abusive coaches, by the bigger systems of exploitation around them, of the deeply fundamental and fundamentally healthy desire we all have to be accepted and loved.
What do you think?
I totally agree. Steve Mangess [a former Oregon Project assistant coach] called the Oregon Project a cult.
It could be that Alberto believed that he cared about Mary. I don’t think that really matters. Regardless of whether he was doing what he did from a place where he thought he was helping, he obviously wasn’t and he should have known it. Especially when she told him everything that was going on.
Going back to that leaked USADA report, what you see is this strategic deployment of affection and withholding of affection by him. If you weren’t performing well or weren’t—in his mind—at the right weight, he would ignore you. But then if you won a race or lost a little weight, you were back in his good graces. That’s not good coaching. I don’t know what that is. It’s crazy not to talk to someone because they didn’t hit the times you wanted them to hit.
Athletes are so craving of that positive feedback. I think some coaches really believe withholding it, playing games with it, that is the way you get them to break through to the next level. So if we really think about Mary’s story and have the hard conversations we need to have about it, it’s going to force us to reconsider a lot of the practices of coaching that we think mean success in our sport. Just because some athletes are resilient and can handle that, it’s still exhausting for them. You shouldn’t be physically and psychologically exhausted from a hard workout. It’s not the right way to coach just because some athletes can survive it.
This has been Hreal Sports, a weekly-ish newsletter written by Patrick Hruby about sports things that don’t stick to sports. If you have any questions or feedback, contact me at my website, www.patrickhruby.net. And if you enjoyed this, please sign up and share with your friends.