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In the wake of distance runner Mary Cain’s allegations of abuse during her time with the Nike Oregon Project track club and coach Alberto Salazar, Nike announced Friday amid a flood of criticism that it will investigate the since-shuttered distance running program.
In a New York Times video op-ed released Thursday, Cain, 23, described how a “systemic crisis in women’s sports and at Nike” left one of track and field’s brightest young stars with a broken body and spirit. Cain joined the Nike Oregon Project shortly after Salazar contacted her at age 16. Cain said Salazar obsessed over her weight and forced her to take medication, some of which was banned. Cain said the weight loss led to her having bone disease, losing her period for three years and, ultimately, having suicidal thoughts and cutting herself.
On social media, several former members of the Oregon Project confirmed or added to Cain’s accounts of Salazar’s fixation on weight. One former runner, Olympian Amy Begley, said Salazar kicked her out of the club in 2011 after saying she was too fat and “had the biggest butt on the starting line.”
After placing 6th in the 10,000m at the 2011 USATF championships, I was kicked out of the Oregon Project. I was told I was too fat and “had the biggest butt on the starting line.” This brings those painful memories back. https://t.co/ocIqnHDL8F
— Amy Yoder Begley OLY 🏳️🌈 (@yoderbegley) November 8, 2019
In a statement Friday, Nike said that it was not aware of Cain’s allegations and that Cain had sought to train under Salazar this year.
“These are deeply troubling allegations which have not been raised by Mary or her parents before,” a Nike spokesman said in an emailed statement. “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.”
In a thread on Twitter, Cain confirmed she had been in contact with Salazar in the spring.
“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,” Cain wrote. “I still loved him. Because when we let people emotionally break us, we crave more than anything their very approval.”
In their spring meeting, Cain said, Salazar opened up about personal “struggles,” which Cain took as a sign of possible reconciliation. When they fell out of touch over the summer, she believed Salazar only cared about her performance, not her as a person.
“Then, after the USADA report dropped, I felt this quick and sudden sense of release,” Cain wrote.
Cain’s allegations became the latest scandal Nike, Salazar and his former club face. In late September, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency banned Salazar and Jeffrey Brown, his personal physician, for four years for administering a banned substance, tampering with the doping control process and trafficking testosterone. Salazar said immediately after the ruling that he plans to appeal. Nike subsequently shut down the Oregon Project.
USADA’s report on the case included a 2009 email exchange between Brown and Nike CEO Mark Parker in which Brown detailed the results of an experiment with a topical hormone gel and Parker thanked him for the update and asked whether there were “other topical hormones that would create more dramatic results.”
Parker announced in October that he will step down in January to become the company’s executive chairman. He told CNBC his decision “had absolutely nothing to do with” Salazar’s ban or the Oregon Project.
Early this decade, Cain emerged as one of the most precocious stars track and field had seen. In 2012, in the summer after her sophomore year of high school, she set a girls’ U.S. high school record by running the 1,500 meters in 4: 11.01 at the junior world championships in Barcelona. She was the youngest American athlete to represent the United States at the world championships. By 17, she had set six American junior records and won a national indoor title in the 1,500. She set her sights on the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, at which point she would have been 20.
Cain’s partnership with Salazar, by her account, cut short her aspirations. In the Times video, Cain said Salazar demanded she weigh 114 pounds, an “arbitrary” target. Cain said Salazar gave her birth control medication and diuretics — which are banned in track and field — to control her weight. Cain acknowledged weight matters in distance running but said Salazar’s methods were unhealthy.
The weight loss, Cain said, disrupted her development. She lost her period for three years, which led to a lack of estrogen production, which led to osteoporosis. She broke five bones, she said. With her performance diminished and her body weakened, Cain started to cut herself, she said. Because all the officials at the Nike Oregon Project were friendly with Salazar, Cain said, she felt she couldn’t turn to anyone for help.
After a disappointing performance at a 2015 meet, Cain recalled in the Times video, she huddled under a tent with fellow competitors during a rainstorm. Salazar screamed at her. She broke down and told him she was cutting herself. Salazar, she said, responded by telling her he was tired and wanted to go to sleep.
“Mary’s father is a medical doctor, and both of her parents were deeply involved in her training, competition and health throughout the period she was coached by me,” Salazar said, according to the paper. “For example, Mary’s father consulted on medications and supplements Mary used during her time at the NOP. Neither of her parents nor Mary raised any of the issues that she now suggests occurred while I was coaching her. To be clear, I never encouraged her, or worse yet, shamed her, to maintain an unhealthy weight.”
But several athletes Salazar trained at the club backed Cain’s account. Canadian runner Cam Levins apologized to Cain through his Twitter account for not supporting her when they were teammates the Oregon Project.
“I knew that our coaching staff was obsessed with your weight loss, emphasizing it as if it were the single thing standing in the way of great performances,” Levins wrote. “I knew because they spoke of it openly among other athletes.”
Adam and Kara Goucher, a married couple, both competed for the track club and have levied criticism at Salazar and Nike since leaving. Kara asked Nike on Twitter to come to her during its investigation “because I have stories to match all of Mary’s claims and so much more.” Adam wrote on his Twitter feed that the way club officials and coached talked about women’s bodies was “disgusting.”
Thank you @runmarycain for sharing your story. While my weight was also an issue while at NOP, it was disgusting to see the way @karagoucher and @yoderbegley bodies were talked about. Maybe now some of you can see why I had so much anger when we left NOP.
— Adam Goucher (@Adam_Goucher) November 8, 2019
He recalled the 2011 Boston Marathon, which took place seven months after Kara gave birth. After Kara finished fifth, Adam said, Salazar approached Kara’s mother and said: “Don’t tell Kara, but she is still too heavy. She needs to lose her baby weight if she wants to be fast again.”
Steve Magness, a former Oregon Project assistant coach who was a crucial whistleblower in USADA’s case against the club, confirmed Cain’s accounts on his Twitter feed. Magness said Salazar would encourage athletes to leave meals hungry and would rebuke them for eating certain foods, such as hamburgers. He called Salazar “obsessed” with weight and said Salazar tried to get athletes to take “shady” supplements.
“I’ve witnessed the harm and damage that such a culture creates,” Magness wrote. “It’s lasting mental health issues. That’s the issue. The culture made it where crazy is normal.”