Cain’s allegations raise further uncomfortable truths for athletics

Julia Cook looks at one of the latest controversies dogging athletics after Mary Cain alleged abuse by banned doper Alberto Salazar during her time with Nike Oregon Project

Mary Cain shocked the sporting world last month with her allegations of abuse by Aleberto Salazar, a story that is growing in relevance everyday.

Cain, a former Nike Oregon Project runner and one of America’s biggest young talents, revealed how she was pressured by Salazar to lose weight, and broke five bones due to weight loss linked osteoporosis. 

Seen as the future of the sport, Salazar started advising Cain in 2012 and she reaped the rewards almost immediately, qualifying for the World Championships as a 17-year-old a year later. 

But instead of nurturing her talent, Cain was told by the all-male staff to get thinner and thinner.

Cain, now 23, told the New York Times: “I joined Nike because I wanted to be the best female athlete ever. Instead I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike.”

Cain also detailed how she lost her period for three years and how the abuse led to suicidal thoughts and self harm. 

She says that her dreams quickly went out of the window.

“I wasn’t even trying to make the Olympics any more, I was trying to survive,” she said.

This is just the latest scandal of many for Salazar, who has been banned from coaching for four years for doping offences. He is currently appealing the decision.

In an email to the New York Times, Salazar denied many of Cain’s claims and said he had supported her health and welfare. On 11 October, Nike announced it was shutting down the Oregon Project.

In a statement to the Times, Cain said that “after the doping report dropped that led to his suspension, I felt this quick and sudden release. That helped me understand that this system is not O.K. That’s why I decided to speak up now.”

Cain described the abuse within the project: “He wanted to give me birth control pills and diuretics [which are banned on anti-doping lists in athletics] to lose weight. I felt so scared and alone and I felt so trapped and I started to have suicidal thoughts.

“I started to cut myself. Some people saw me cutting myself. And nobody really did anything or said anything.”

Many within athletics have spoken out in support with Cain, including former Nike athlete Allyson Felix, who was dropped when she got pregnant, and current Nike athlete-turned-coach, Shalane Flanagan. 

Cain’s story raises important issues. When do we stop supporting Nike? And at what cost? Do we prioritise shoes that give us personal bests over fighting for clean sport, women and integrity?

Whilst Cain’s picture of Salazar and the Oregon Project may seem unbelievable to some, it is by no means the only toxic culture within athletics, or sport as a whole. It’s an extreme and high-profile example of the issues faced by countless others, raising questions about how athletes are trapped within a sporting system not fit for purpose. With no dedicated nutritionist or psychologist, and a culture that made athletes feel alone, where are they meant to turn?

There’s an undeniable truth that weight and performance are linked. But that should never come at the cost of an athletes mental or physical wellbeing. And that should never allow a culture of bullying and harassment to be created. 

What has to be considered is how and when an athlete’s weight is talked about, with nutritionists and psychologists, and how it should never come before the physical or mental well being of the athlete. Having an outside professional, whose sole job it is to act in the best interests of the athlete’s health, means that coaches can focus on what’s important, and don’t have to weigh in on issues that they don’t have expertise or experience in. 

Cain herself also offered a solution, suggesting that more women need to be involved within athletics. “I got caught in a system designed by and for men, which destroys the bodies of young girls. We have to protect them.” 

Women can’t do this alone. Men need to step up and be allies, calling out problems when they see them, and supporting women who do. 

Cain sharing her story has started an incredible debate within athletics and sport as a whole. It’s stories like Cain’s that change the world, and make it a better place for the women after. 

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