Recently cancelled Nike Oregon Project mistreats female athletes

Mahathi Sridhar and Kaitlyn Gearin

The New York Timesposted a video OpEd in which Mary Cain, former teenage distance-running prodigy, spoke out about her time training under Alberto Salazar in the toxic environment of the (recently shut down) Nike Oregon Project, on Nov. 7. When she was 16, Cain was contacted by Salazar, who invited her to run professionally for the Nike Oregon Project, which, at the time, was one of the most successful distance running groups in the world.

What originally seemed like a dream come true quickly turned into a nightmare for Cain.

“I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike…. An all-male Nike staff became convinced that in order for me to get better, I had to become thinner and thinner and thinner,” Cain said.

According to Cain, she was weighed and shamed in front of her teammates, stole her roommate’s CLIF bars to eat in private and eventually began making herself throw up after eating. This obsession over Cain’s weight damaged her overall health and well-being. She lost her period, broke five bones and struggled with suicidal thoughts.

The running community has shown strong support for Cain since the OpEd was published. Other professionals have acknowledged witnessing similar treatment of women in the sport. On Twitter, Olympic silver medalist Shalane Flanagan addressed Cain, saying, “I had no idea it was this bad. I’m so sorrythat I never reached out to you when I saw you struggling. I made excuses to myself as to why I should mind my own business. We let you down. I will never turn my head again.”

Additionally, former NOP athletes have spoken out and provided more examples of Salazar’s brutality and focus on the weight of his female athletes. Among these are Kara Goucher and Amy Yoder Begley. An article from Sports Illustratedstated, “Goucher remembers Salazar telling Begley, ‘You have no shot. You’re too fat,’” after she was weighed in front of the team.

Despite support from the running community, Cain hasn’t received genuine apologies from Salazar and Nike, whose responses sandwiched statements of regret with points attempting to invalidate her claims. In Salazar’s statement regarding Cain’s allegations, he said, “If I was callous or insensitive, I am sorry,” before going on to describe how Cain “struggled to find and maintain her ideal performance and training weight.”

The problem is, there shouldn’t have even been an ideal training weight. Salazar should have encouraged Cain to fuel her body with plenty of good food rather than getting hung up on an “ideal weight” and shaming her when she was over it.

Nike also responded to Cain’s allegations, stating, “We take the allegations extremely seriously and will launch an immediate investigation to hear from former Oregon Project athletes.” The company calls Cain’s claims “deeply troubling.” Though the company has launched an inward investigation into these allegations, Cain doesn’t seem to think that’s enough.

In order for a truly unbiased judgment to be made, Nike should hand over the investigation to a third party.