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After Claims of Emotional and Physical Abuse of Women Runners, Nike Will Investigate Prestigious Oregon Project

Mary Cain
Mary Cain
Image: Getty

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.

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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.

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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.

Pop Culture Reporter, Jezebel

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DISCUSSION

I don’t follow track, but I do follow swimming, which I think has some similarities to track. One of the biggest debates that rages in the world of swimming, especially when looking at teenage swimmers (often female) is whether to go professional and forgo NCAA eligibility. There is a relatively small window of opportunity for most swimmers who are not Michael Phelps to cash in on their success, and the window can be even tinier if a young swimmer peaks very quickly and then suddenly heads into a decline. I imagine the same can be true for track athletes. (I think this more frequently applies to female swimmers because of how their bodies develop over time, and that they tend to peak earlier than men do. Katie Ledecky was only 15 in London and 19 when she swam in Rio, but I don’t think there were any teenagers on the men’s team. [Edited to add that Caeleb Dressel was also 19 in Rio, but he turned 20 that August.])

Mary Cain was pushed to be a professional athlete at 18. I’m a big proponent of a gap year system in the US because I don’t think most people are ready to make a big life decision at 18. Imagine being thrust from high school to an intense training regime at 18? No one is your peer. You’re not living at home. And Nike is putting immense pressure on you because you’re now their employee. You have to deliver, and the stakes are so much higher than they’ve ever been. There’s no support system in place? No one is thinking about how fragile an 18-year-old woman can really be?

There’s a lot that’s flawed about the NCAA, and it especially hurts phenom athletes in sports that aren’t necessarily money-makers. Why should a runner or a swimmer not be allowed to accept medal bonuses or world record bonuses just to keep their eligibility to compete in the NCAA? Being on a team in a sport that’s largely focused on individual achievements is key to keeping an athlete well. That support system is so important, and young athletes, again mostly women, are being forced to make a choice based on finances. No one should make that decision at 18, and we clearly see the consequences of it here.

(This also reminds me a lot of the story about Dagny Knutson, a phenom USA swimmer who got incredibly screwed over when she was pressured by USA Swimming to go pro and not swim in college.)