Two-and-a-half weeks after elite runner Mary Cain aired allegations of forced weight loss and public shaming in a Nike-supported running program, she is still calling for a third-party investigation into the matter.
Her op-ed video “I Was the Fastest Girl in America” for The New York Times had more than six million views as of Monday afternoon. Cain, who signed up with the now-disbanded Nike Oregon Project in 2013, claimed the program’s coach Alberto Salazar publicly shamed her for not being thin enough and bred an eating disorder culture. She exited the program in 2016 after allegedly telling Salazar she has been cutting herself as a form of a self-harm, essentially getting no reaction and phoning her parents to share her problems.
In late September, Salazar was handed a four-year ban from the U.S. Anti-Doping Association for “orchestrating and facilitating prohibited doping conduct” at Nike’s Oregon Project. Nike Inc. executives initially stood by Salazar and then back-peddled days later, cutting ties with the former Olympian. In response to Cain’s video, Nike challenged Cain in a statement issued earlier this month for not raising her concerns in April when she was looking to rejoin the program. The company also announced plans to launch an immediate investigation to hear from former Oregon Project athletes.
But Cain said Friday, “I haven’t heard much more beyond [that and] they don’t seem willing to do a third-party investigation even though I called for it. There really hasn’t been much change from their platform and position, so there really hasn’t been from mine either.”
Should Nike commit to a third-party investigation, Cain said she would “happily” cooperate. As for whether there will be any legal ramifications against Nike, she said, “I don’t really know going forward. The truth is a lot of that I’m keeping closer to my chest.”
A Nike spokesman did not acknowledge requests for comment Monday about the status of the investigation, with specific questions including whether there will be a third-party investigation.
Speaking in broader terms, the recent Fordham grad said she is a big believer in Corporate Social Responsibility “in that companies are not people. They are made up of people. The individuals within a company should step up in situations like this and really demand change. If they really believe in a product that they are trying to sell, then they should make sure they are doing it responsibly. And they should make sure that the people they are using for advertising and to sell that product are being treated properly.”
She added, “In situations like this, a brand should step up and say, ‘Hey, we messed up. Let’s do a third-party investigation and make sure that we get this right for the future.’ That’s the responsible thing to do.”
From her perspective, internal investigations inhibit athletes from speaking openly “because that’s their sponsor and how they make money.” Cain said. “The company has kind of victim-blamed me in a lot of their statements so that will breed mistrust and a little bit of confusion as to what they plan on doing within an investigation and whether it will be taken seriously.”
On a typical day Cain runs between six and 14 miles. Her 30-hour weekly training schedule is comparable to her training at the Oregon Project time-wise, but it is more balanced. She spends 10 hours running with the remaining 20 hours related to recovery. “Back then it was 30 hours of heavy training. Now there is more recovery work, physical therapy and things that are less intensive, but that are still time commitments,” she said.
Asked if she has signed any new endorsement deals, Cain said, “Oh, no, no, this is not why I did this.” But after the op-ed broke, various brands sent her running gear. Cain declined to identify any of the companies. She said, “The biggest thing that I’ve appreciated is that a lot of brands have stepped up and sent me stuff. As a professional runner, for many years I’ve been given Nike clothes. It’s been kind of cool and fun to try something new and to do something that I haven’t done in six years — train in non-Nike gear.”
In a study of Division 1 NCAA athletes, more than one-third of female athletes reported attitudes and symptoms placing them at risk for anorexia nervosa, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Non-athletes are also suffering from eating disorders — more than 10 million American women alone. The issue has been an area of great concern in fashion where models’ livelihoods are tied to their physiques. Council of Fashion Designers of America first zeroed in on the problem in 2007, by circulating its Health Initiative.
All in all, Cain said she never imagined her story “would break past the track world,” she said. “I just honestly assumed that most people were so ingrained within the system that the reaction would be 50-50 — positive and negative. I just genuinely did not expect it to have such an international and national reach. It’s really hopeful that it did, because it means there’s more opportunity for change. But it’s almost sad that it did, because it shows how systemic it is and how broadly people can empathize and sympathize with such and experiences. It really does transcend sport.”
Allowing that being lean and strong can be desirable for performance, Cain emphasized that taking arbitrary numbers just to be skinny does not create strength and power. “And it doesn’t make a good athlete. The issue with my story was not the fact that I had a coach who wanted me to lose weight. Sometimes athletes are expected to lose weight over the course of the season. But usually they work with a professional nutritionist. There’s not some arbitrary target that’s trying to be reached. It’s more go through the process — train hard, eat well. Maybe weight would fall off, maybe it won’t. Rather than almost targeting a look,” she said.
Competitive sports like gymnastics, wrestling, long-distance running, figure skating, diving and dancing may have greater risks of eating disorders, since body size is highly scrutinized among some competitors. With figure skaters, ballerinas and runners, there is “very much a picturesque view that the coach will put on the board to say you have to look like that. Genetics don’t work like that,” Cain said. “Societal pressures can really force girls to look one specific way, when in reality there’s not one way to be good.”
Kara Goucher, Yoder Begley and other world-class runners substantiated Cain’s claims and pledged their support earlier this month. Goucher offered to share her own experiences via social media. Cain has yet to meet with any of them in the past few weeks, due to geographical challenges. “It is really cool to know now that I have this almost second team. I’ve obviously made a lot of great connections through this,” said Cain, adding she periodically receives texts from supporters to see how she is doing.
While some in the media and via social media have challenged The New York Times for not recognizing Cain’s struggles when she was profiled for a 2015 magazine piece, Cain defended the new outlet. “I was so in the system. They kept the door closed on the reporter [Lindsay Crouse], who I worked with so tightly. I was in college at the time and they made it so difficult for her to get in touch with me. Any time they were going to sit down and talk, a coach or somebody had to be in the room. The process was very difficult. The truth is it was a cult and we really didn’t let people in behind the closed doors ever,” Cain said. “I absolutely don’t hold anybody accountable for having not known what was going on. At that time, I wasn’t even fully vocal with my parents — let alone a reporter I didn’t know.”
She continued, “In any situation like this, there’s a tendency to cast blame whether it’s on the victim, family, friends, the sports world, media — anything. But it’s most important to reflect on the fact that this is systemic and yes, in my case, there were certain bad eggs. But the truth is so much of what I went through so many people do. It’s about rewriting the general, societal and cultural pressures that we put on people to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Cultural awareness, as in high school and NCAA coaches discussing the issue with their teams to make people feel comfortable about being more open and talking about their experiences, would be a good starting point, according to Cain. Longer-term, educational programs for coaches and athletes are needed, perhaps along the lines of sexual abuse awareness ones that have proven to be effective, she said. By doing so, athletes would recognize instances of abuse before they escalate to remove themselves or to cause the abuser to be removed sooner.
With an undergrad degree in business and having completed her premed requirements, Cain’s short-term career plans are to pursue running. On a broader sense, she aims to take on advocacy roles for women in sports with the hope of changing the system. “Longer-term, I’m not quite sure. In so many ways, I just love athletics. It would be really hard for me to pivot outside of the sports world. But I have so many aspirations in that regard that I’m just going to let the next few years play out and take it one step at a time,” Cain said.
As for whether Cain has any regrets, she said there are always regrets after situations like this. But she reminds herself that some of the issues that she suffered from at the Oregon Project are systemic throughout running. “I can’t say with confidence that had I not been in the NCAA or gone to another program that some of these issues wouldn’t have still been a problem,” she said. “Based on the reaction of my piece, it’s really clear that a lot of girls on so many different levels within the sport go through this. My experience was particularly egregious, based on the nature of it being a professional program. But nonetheless, that does not mean it was a one-off take. It’s easy to look back and say, ‘Oh, I should have done something sooner or I shouldn’t have listened to them.’ But I believe that everything happens for a reason. It’s incredibly sad to reflect upon what happened. But I can’t live my life with regret because then you can never move forward.”