Cain, 23, began working with Nike and NOP head coach Alberto Salazar in 2012, during her freshman year at the University of Portland. But, she says, her promising track career was thwarted by mistreatment at the hands of Salazar and his staff. Cain had been the youngest American woman to ever compete in the World Championships.
“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,” said Cain.
She alleges that Salazar and his staff urged her to become “thinner and thinner and thinner,” which led to her developing RED-S Syndrome, also known as the Female Athlete Triad, a condition that is manifested in decreased bone density and loss of a menstrual cycle. Cain said she went three years without a period and suffered five broken bones as a result of RED-S. At the same time, she said, her mental health started to deteriorate.
“I ran terrible during this time. It reached a point where I was on the starting line and I’d lost the race before I started because in my head, all I was thinking of was not the time I was trying to hit but the number on the scale I was earlier that day,” Cain said. “I felt so scared. And I felt so trapped. And I started to have suicidal thoughts. I started cutting myself.”
Cain alleges that Salazar and his staff would berate her in front of her peers if she did not hit an “arbitrary” target weight of 114 pounds, claiming that she was told to take birth-control pills and diuretics, the latter banned in track-and-field, to keep her weight down.
Cain’s allegations of mistreatment come after Salazar was banned from his profession by the U.S. Anti-Doping Association for four years. Through a six-year review, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency found that Salazar trafficked testosterone, a banned substance; tampered or attempted to tamper with the doping control process; and administered a prohibited IV infusion. Nike CEO Mark Parker became caught in the scandal as well, after leaked emails appeared to show his knowledge of doping abuse.
On Oct. 10, Nike announced it would “wind down” the Oregon Project. Parker announced his exit from the CEO role on Oct. 22, a departure that some insiders thought could be connected to the Oregon Project scandal.
“Those reforms are mostly a direct result of the doping scandal,” Cain suggested, adding that the she believes necessary work isn’t done yet: “They’re not acknowledging the fact that there is a systemic crisis in women’s sports and at Nike, in which young girls’ bodies are being ruined by an emotionally and physically abusive system.”
Cain further suggested she “got caught in a system designed by and for men,” referring to the all-male training staff at NOP. If she had worked with more female nutritionists, trainers and psychologists, the runner noted, she thinks she might have been able to avoid some of the emotional and physical turmoil she said she experienced.
In a response to FN, a representative for Nike said the company is investigating the claims. “These are deeply troubling allegations which have not been raised by Mary or her parents before. 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.”