Last May Allyson Felix published a Op-Ed and accompanying video in the New York Times. Felix detailed some of the challenges and obstacles she encountered when returning to training and later competition after giving birth. Specifically female runners are likely to lose sponsorships and endorsements. These runners must overcome a perception that they won’t be able to return to peak form. Brands like Nike have used this as leverage in contract negotiations with athletes. Felix is only one of many female athletes who have experienced this stigma. One of the major takeaways from Felix’s story is that she felt empowered to speak out because other runners before her had done so. Namely, Alysia Montaño and Kara Goucher who also disclosed their pregnancy stories and relationship with Nike.
Enter Mary Cain and Her Unfortunate Story
Mary Cain was once regarded as a track and field prodigy setting many records. She was the youngest American track and field athlete to make a World Championships team. She followed that by signing to Nike’s Oregon Project (more on that later) after being persuaded by then renowned coach Alberto Salazar. Unfortunately, Cain never realized her full potential. Her career was was derailed by injuries and abuse. Cain suffered physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a system designed by Salazar and “endorsed by Nike.”
Soon after becoming part of Nike’s Oregon Project Cain’s coaches became convinced that for her to get faster, she must get thinner. Specifically, Salazar wanted Cain to weigh just 114 pounds. Cain and other runners were made to weigh in in front of their teammates and were shamed if they didn’t hit their target weight. Salazar gave Cain birth control and diuretics to help her lose weight. As a result her performance plumuted, she wasn’t the same runner. Cain developed RED-S Syndrome and other serious medical conditions. She started to have suicidal thoughts and began to cut herself, sometimes in front of others. No action to help Cain was taken, instead Salazar continue to berate and pressure her. Cain quit the team in 2015 because of the abuse.
Alberto Salazar was once one of the top long distance running coaches in the world. He has trained runners such as Sifan Hassan and Mo Farah. Salazar himself was once a great marathoner himself winning the New York Marathon three times. He helped to form the the Nike Oregon Project in 2001 wanting to better compete on the international stage. Even then Salazar was known for “operating in a gray area, using unconventional methods and pushing the envelope.”
This is not the first time Salazar’s training tactics have been called into serious question. A 2015 BBC report detailed his experiments with testosterone and other banned substances. He also pressured runners into using thyroid and asthma medication that they didn’t need in an effort to boost performance. Worst of all Salazar tested testosterone supplements on his own sons. It had been clear for some time that Salazar was a questionable figure who broke traditional coaching norms.
All of this finally caught up with Salazar in October. He was banned from the sport of distance running for four years for United States Anti-Doping Agency violations. He was found to have trafficked testosterone as well as administering L-carnitine to runners. This likely spells the end for the now infamous Salazar. His legacy will be lasting and probably very damaging for Nike, who had stood behind him throughout the years.
More on the Nike Oregon Project
The Oregon Project is an elite team of the World’s best runners. The team was lead by Salazar and financed by Nike. The program was founded in 2001 and has been mired in controversy ever since. There was a prevalent culture of coercion and secrecy that harmed athletes emotionally and physically. Years of abuse finally came to a head when Salazar was banned for four years for anti-doping violations. Under intense scrutiny Nike finally decided to shut the program down just ten days after Salazar’s suspension. Nike, specifically CEO Mark Parker, are wise to engage in some damage control because they are implicated in USADA’s report.
Nike’s Potential Liability
As more information comes to light, Nike’s role in the Oregon Project has come into focus. It is clear that they financed the operation and had direct control. The Oregon Project was very much a Nike pet project. Specifically, Nike’s CEO Mark Parker was receiving frequent briefings from Dr. Jeffrey Brown. Brown is a endocrinologist from Houston who was assisting Salazar in his testosterone experiments. Additionally, Parker is implicated in a number of emails where he expresses his interest in other testorostone experiments. Numerous athletes have detailed there was no emotional support services for athletes who clearly needed it. It is also clear that female runners were not provided adequate medical treatment. Instead of being cared for these runners were abused and experimented upon.
It will be interesting to see if any former Oregon Project athletes sue Nike or Salazar for injuries suffered from their mistreatment. Nike certainly appears to be negligent in its administration and oversight of the program. Signs of abuse and mistreatment were apparent for years. Yet, Salazar remained unchecked as his abuse infected the program. This created a toxic culture where female athletes were pressured to be thinner and thinner. Mary Cain likely won’t be the last runner who comes forward to detail the abuse. Nike’s inaction allowed the abuse and mistreatment to continue. Injuries suffered by its own athletes would not have occurred if Nike had dealt with the situation appropriately by removing Salazar and administering proper care. This lack of medical care may also expose Nike to medical malpractice actions. Doctors were acting at the behest of Salazar instead of acting in the best interest of their patients. Athletes like Mary Cain suffered career altering injuries as a result of these insane training practices and were further harmed by inadequate treatment. Nike is liable for the actions of the Oregon Project and could ultimately find itself in court explaining the actions Salazar and its CEO Mark Parker. As more details emerge and more runners come forward Nike may find itself liable for breach of contract or intentional infliction of emotional distress.