Mary Cain was on her way to becoming an Olympic track star until she joined a training system that neglected the health of female athletes and promoted unhealthy and even dangerous nutrition methods.
Cain was a national record-breaking track star at just 17 years old, and became the youngest athlete to make a world championship team. In 2013, during her freshman year of college, she signed and worked full time with the elite track training program, Nike Oregon Project, run by world-famous track coach Alberto Salazar.
The Oregon Project was launched in 2001 by the shoe company, Nike, with intentions to train American distance runners to become the fastest athletes in the world. The program bred many Olympic athletes and medalists, as reported by Runners World. But instead of encouraging healthy competition and giving them support, the organization, and especially Salazar, pushed numerous athletes to their breaking point, Cain being one of them.
Cain’s weight was a huge problem for the trainers at the Oregon Project. They were convinced that in order for her to be better, she must become thinner. Salazar and his trainers pressured her to be at a certain weight and constantly reminded her of it with weigh-ins in front of other teammates, Cain told the New York Times. Former Nike athlete Cam Levins admitted on Twitter that even he was aware of the trainers’ obsession with her weight, “as if it were the single thing standing in the way of great performances.”
The number on a scale has absolutely nothing to do with athletic greatness. Of course it makes sense that having less weight to carry makes you run faster, but pushing these athletes to become underweight, as Salazar did to Cain, can have serious health and mental effects, and make them feel like they’re not good enough. While training at the Oregon Project, Cain started to develop osteoporosis and RED-S Syndrome, which is a condition that can result in female athletes losing their periods due to disordered eating, eventually decreasing their bone health, according to UW Health. Cain told the New York Times that she lost her period for three years and broke five bones. She also suffered suicidal thoughts and began cutting herself, which Salazar did nothing about even when she told him. The Oregon Project didn’t even have a sports psychologist or nutritionist that could help Cain through the mental and physical abuse she was receiving.
Whatever training or support that Salazar provided for Cain was completely destructive and irresponsible. He reduced her worth down to what her weight was, and pushed her body until it nearly broke down. Although many Olympic-bound athletes push their bodies to the limits, this is so different. This is abuse, proven by Cain’s terrible physical health and emotional trauma from that time in her life. Another former Oregon Project trainee, Amy Yoder Begley, tweeted that she was kicked out of the program because she was “too fat and ‘had the biggest butt on the starting line.’” This kind of insulting of athletes’ appearances is unacceptable and is not even relevant to athletic ability, because as Cain explained to the New York Times, she ran worse when on Salazar’s diet. A woman’s size should not be a contender in her performance, and it is completely unfair to hold women athletes to these weight standards that men easily escape. Men, like Salazar, should not be the ones to decide what a woman’s body should look like, especially when the emphasis is on thinness rather than strength and health.
Another issue at play here is that Cain was trained similarly to the male athletes in the program. The New York Times explains that when female athletes are forced to meet the development standard of male athletes, their body will not be able to handle it. The fact that the Oregon Project did not have an informed trainer that understood the developmental process and limits of the female body is careless and favors the male athletes in the program. This further emphasizes a weight and strength standard in this program that the men and women athletes are expected to fulfill, but it was made only for the men.
Nike released a statement saying that the complaints made by Cain had never been raised to them before, and that Cain actually requested to work with Salazar again as recently as April of 2019, the New York Times reports. To this, Cain replied that this desire to train with Salazar again was a direct result of his abuse to her, because she continually wanted to prove herself to him. This is completely understandable and goes to show how much Salazar manipulated her mind into thinking that his methods were the only way to win and gain his approval. Nike will also be launching an investigation into the Oregon Project, which has now been shut down due to doping allegations against Salazar. It is great that the Oregon Project and Salazar’s abusive training methods have been stopped, but Nike only shut it down because of illegal doping, paying no mind to the damage the program did to athletes like Cain. Nike owes it to the athletes of the Oregon project to recognize Salazar’s mistreatment of athletes and ensure this will never happen again.