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Volume 22 No. 35
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Heartbreaking account puts culture of training, body shaming in spotlight

Earlier this month, Mary Cain opened up about her experiences with Nike’s Oregon Project and disgraced coach Alberto Salazar. “I joined Nike because I wanted to be the best female athlete ever,” said Cain in a New York Times video op-ed. “Instead, I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike.” In unflinching detail, Cain, 23, talked about how an “all-male Nike staff became convinced that in order for me to get better, I had to become thinner and thinner and thinner.”

The Cain story is heartbreaking, anger provoking, action demanding. It is not shocking. Not to me. Not to someone who competed in distance running in high school and college; who loved the sport but hated the body shaming that came with it.  

The pressure to get thinner broke Cain. The former running phenom started cutting herself and thought about suicide. Three years after she joined the Oregon Project, she quit the team. “I wasn’t even trying to make the Olympics anymore,” said Cain. “I was just trying to survive.”

Mary Cain, shown here at the 2016 Drake Relays, said she “got caught in a system designed by and for men, which destroys the bodies of young girls.”
Photo: ap images

Reaction to Cain’s story was swift and viral. Runners, coaches, doctors, even presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris responded to it. For many, it was painfully relatable. For many more, it was a call to action. Now, #FixGirlsSports is gathering momentum. But how do you fix a system that left Cain feeling “scared,” “alone” and “trapped” with the Oregon Project? How do you change a sports culture that prizes thinness?

Educate. Educate. Educate. Cain said “some people saw me cutting myself” and did nothing. Some people also saw Salazar yell at Cain about her weight after a 2015 track meet and did nothing. Maybe the witnesses didn’t know what to do, didn’t know how to intervene, didn’t want to get involved because of Nike’s power or didn’t know that the cutting and the yelling were symptoms of an abusive relationship.

Everyone needs to understand that not all “athlete abuse” is sexual abuse. We need to learn what to do when we suspect physical or emotional abuse.

The U.S. Center for SafeSport investigates cases of physical and emotional abuse, in addition to sexual abuse. CEO Ju’Riese Colón said that while emotional abuse is rarely reported, it “typically escalates over time” and “occurs when a person is subjected or exposed to behavior that may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression, eating disorders, or post-traumatic stress disorder.” If the social media response to Cain’s story is any indication, many female athletes suffer under emotionally abusive coaches.

Universities require students, faculty and staff to go through training about abusive relationships and sexual harassment. Why not require high school and college athletic departments and elite teams to do something similar with all forms of athlete abuse? The more educated we are, the better we’ll handle it.

That education should include current research about what happens when female athletes become too thin. The more we understand the science, the better equipped we’ll be to chip away at a culture that wrongly equates thinness with success.

Bring in more women, especially coaches. This is a popular, evergreen solution to issues that affect female athletes. That’s because changing the ratio works. “Part of me wonders if I had worked with more female psychologists, nutritionists and even coaches, where I’d be today,” said Cain in the video. “I got caught in a system designed by and for men, which destroys the bodies of young girls.”

Many, though not all, male coaches don’t adjust for the naturally different needs of female athletes. Meanwhile, female coaches bring a naturally different perspective. That’s so obvious it makes any training system designed exclusively by men especially infuriating. Another benefit of more women: Some can relate on a deeply personal level because they’ve been there, too. You want women like that coaching, counseling and fixing the system.

In the wake of the Cain video, former Olympian Amy Yoder Begley tweeted about her experiences with the Oregon Project. She got kicked off the team after a 6th place finish at the 2011 U.S. Track and Field Championships. She was told she was “too fat” and “had the biggest butt on the starting line.” Now, she said those experiences make her a better coach of the Atlanta Track Club.

Hold Nike accountable. In October, after Salazar was banned for four years because of doping violations, Nike shuttered the Oregon Project. Following Cain’s video, Salazar issued a denial and Nike promised to “launch an immediate investigation to hear from former Oregon Project athletes.” It’ll be surprising if Nike holds itself accountable. The investigation is Crisis Management 101. That means Cain, the running community, former Oregon Project members and anyone else who cares about female athletes need to keep the pressure on. We can’t be intimidated by the swoosh or distracted by the promise of an investigation. That goes for governing bodies like USA Track & Field, too.

In order to take on the system as well as Nike, the #FixGirlsSports movement needs many leaders to inspire action, to empower female athletes and to model the way.

Consider how Shalane Flanagan reacted. In a tweet, the recently retired, four-time Olympian held herself accountable and apologized to Cain. “I made excuses to myself as to why I should mind my own business,” wrote Flanagan. “We let you down. I will never turn my head again.” 

Now, Flanagan is a coach for the Nike Bowerman Track Club. Calls for change are coming from outside and inside. Count that as a victory for Cain and female athletes.

Shira Springer (saspring@bu.edu) covers stories at the intersection of sports and society for programs on NPR and WBUR, writes a column on women’s sports for the Boston Globe and teaches journalism at Boston University.

Questions about OPED submission guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com