In 2013 Mary Cain, a teenage running prodigy who was the youngest track and field athlete to make a World Championships team, joined Nike’s prestigious Oregon Project. The brand launched the project in 2001, recruiting top athletes to train and promote competitive long-distance running. But according to an op-ed from Cain published on Thursday, she was emotionally and physically abused within the program, forced to drop weight so dramatically that she stopped having a period.
The harrowing op-ed comes soon after Nike announced it was shutting down the Oregon Project after star head coach Alberto Salazar was banned by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for doping violations. But Cain’s op-ed illuminates how the Oregon Project’s problems went far beyond the doping scandal. She describes how Salazar was “constantly trying to get [her] to lose weight,” throwing out an “arbitrary” number of 114 pounds. He would weigh Cain in front of team mates and shame her if she gained.
The pressure to lose an intense amount of weight caused Cain’s performance as a star runner to suffer; she lost her period for three years and broke five different bones. All the while, runners had no certified sports psychologist or nutritionist. Cain describes turning to self-harm and cutting herself to cope, even telling Salazar that she was doing so, who did nothing to help her. It was in that moment that she knew she had to leave. “I wasn’t trying to make the Olympics anymore, I was just trying to survive,” Cain says.
Since Cain’s op-ed Nike has announced it will immediately investigate her claims by speaking with former Oregon Project athletes, the Guardian reports. Athlete Amy Yoder Begley also tweeted that she was kicked out of the Oregon Project and told she “was too fat and ‘had the biggest butt on the starting line.’” Cain’s story underlines the fact that when it comes to the highly physical, restrictive world of sports, there is a wide spectrum of abuse of young women athletes that doesn’t only concern sexual abuse. There is a line between safely but intensely pushing athletes like Cain for higher performance, and pushing them to the point that the sport becomes torture.