BTS of Nike: What to do with the story of Mary Cain
Updated: Oct 2
On November 7th, the New York Times released an opinion piece that covered the story of professional runner, Mary Cain. Cain’s story is an incredibly shocking one that reveals a lot about the treatment Nike shows their athletes, especially female ones. Her story is as follows:
In 2013, then 17 year old Mary Cain became the youngest track and field athlete to run in the World Championships, and she signed with the elite running program in the country, the Nike Oregon Project. Led by head coach Alberto Salazar, Nike’s team was elite for a reason. Huge Olympic names and medalists like Mo Farah and Galen Rupp were a part of this team, and to be a part of it was a dream come true for Cain.
When Cain came to Oregon, she entered a world that was dominated by men in the sport of track and field, and it began to create some serious problems. Salazar and the rest of the training staff stressed the importance of weight loss very crucially to Cain, and they repeatedly commented on her weight in demeaning ways, even publicly shaming her at meets and in front of her teammates. Cain said that she recognizes the importance of weight in all sports, not just running, but the mindset of her coaches went way too far.
Cain spoke of how Salazar wanted to give her birth control pills and diuretics (diuretics being illegal to use in track and field), and she started developing RED-S syndrome. RED-S is found mainly in young female athletes who are pushed beyond their limits and it causes them to stop having their period for extended amounts of time. Cain told the Times that she had lost her period for 3 entire years. These effects from RED-S led to improper levels of estrogen in her bones and she consequentially broke 5 bones in a non-contact sport.
After years of suicidal thoughts, actions of self-harm, and the lack of Salazar or anyone addressing her obvious health problems, Cain left the team in 2016. In recent news, Salazar has been fired by Nike from the Oregon Project after a scandal with the US anti-doping agency, and a few weeks later, Nike disbanded the entire Oregon Project. As a result of all this, Nike CEO, Mark Parker, is resigning in January of 2020.
But will this actually create change? How can Nike ensure that any situation remotely close to Mary’s will never happen again? I believe that it must start in re-structuring the running projects themselves. In the case of the Oregon Project, it is obvious that Salazar was a big part of the problem, but he wasn’t the only one. Cain spoke about how the entire coaching and training staff were men. On top of that there was no sports psychologist or nutritionist for the team or athletes to consult.
If Nike wishes to attack the issues in the clubs, including doping and the gross mistreatment of females, they need to be hiring those who represent the values of their runners, not just the values of the program (which has always been speed). Running is already a risky sport to become professionally involved with because unlike most other big pro sports, there is no players association or legal representation equivalent with USATF (USA Track and Field). Runners basically sign over their entire professional careers when signing with teams with little to no job security, which allows companies like Nike to have full control over their athletes with no accountability.
Cain’s personal testimony to the Times is linked here.