The ex-head coach of Nike's defunct long-distance running group known as the Oregon Project is the subject of new allegations from one of its former members.
In an op-ed for the New York Times today, record-setting runner Mary Cain claims that former Oregon Project head coach Alberto Salazar and his team fostered a dangerous environment responsible for a decline in her performance. According to Cain, Salazar imposed strict weight limits on the young athlete, who skipped going to college and instead signed on with the Oregon Project in 2013. At the time, she was the fastest girl in the country.
But according to Cain, that wasn't enough for Salazar, who repeatedly encouraged her to lose more weight. Cain described instances of being scolded by Salazar for her weight in front of teammates. She also claims he tried to give her birth control pills and diuretics to lose weight, the latter of which is not allowed in track & field. "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 saw earlier that day," she said.
Cain says that the stress on her body caused her to develop RED-S Syndrome. The condition had an impact on her estrogen levels and eventually her bone strength, leading to Cain breaking five bones. Around this time, she said the New York Times published a story about how Salazar was helping "nurture" her talent. "We weren't doing any of that," Cain said. She became depressed and suicidal and her parents encouraged her to quit the team and return home.
Last month, Salazar was banned from the sport of track & field after doping allegations which had long followed the former coach and the Oregon Project was shut down. Despite this, Cain says there's still changes that need to be made.
"They're not acknowledging that there's 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 said. She worries that Nike will rebrand the Oregon Project and put Salazar's former assistants in charge. Instead, she thinks the brand should promote more women to power, specifically psychologists, nutritionists, and coaches.
In response to an inquiry regarding these allegations, a Nike spokesperson provided us the following statement.
“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.”