Nike’s Mistreatment of Athletes


Kate Larrick, Staff Writer

In the world of elite athletes, Nike is undoubtedly the best known company for sportswear. However, things are not as pristine as they seem in the world of Nike sports; the multinational corporation has faced numerous allegations from athletes in programs run by Nike, particularly female athletes who were victims of a culture that pressures women to be thinner in order to be faster.

The issue was first brought to light in an opinion video produced by The New York Times, titled “I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike.” The video features star runner Mary Cain revealing that she had been mistreated by the staff at the Oregon Project, particularly the head coach, Alberto Salazar.

“I joined Nike because I wanted to be the best female athlete ever,” Cain said in the video. “Instead, I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike.”

Mary Cain first stepped into the spotlight in 2012 as a 16-year-old distance runner with multiple national records. She was considered to be a running prodigy and was the youngest track and field athlete to be on a World Championships team. She seemed destined to become an Olympic medalist and world record holder. In November of 2013, Cain joined Nike’s Oregon Project, which was widely considered to be the best track team in the world.

Unfortunately, her early success did not last long. Cain’s health soon began to decline, and she lost vital bone density, eventually resulting in five broken bones. She lost her period, which would last for the next three years. Cain attributed these health issues to being pressured by Salazar to lose weight so she would be faster.

“When I first arrived, an all-male Nike staff became convinced that in order for me to get better, I had to become thinner and thinner and thinner,” Cain said.

Cain’s testimony prompted other elite athletes to step forward and reveal their own stories of harassment at the hands of Nike coaches. NCAA champion Amy Yoder Begley opened up on Twitter about her experience as a part of the Oregon Project.

“After placing 6th in the 10,000m at the 2011 USATF championships, I was kicked out of the Oregon Project,” Begley said. “I was told I was too fat and ‘had the biggest butt on the starting line.’ This brings those painful memories back.”

Kara Goucher, another top-ranking runner, placed 5th in the Boston Marathon just six months after giving birth, with a time of 2 hours and 24 minutes.

Her husband, Adam Goucher, revealed that Salazar told him, “Don’t tell Kara, but she is still too heavy. She needs to lose her baby weight if she wants to be fast again.”

Despite the fact that she had just run one of the fastest marathons of any woman that year, Salazar focused on her body.

“The culture was unbearable,” Kara Goucher later said on Twitter.

“In 2011-2012, I witnessed many instances that confirm [Cain] and [Begley]’s accounts,” said former Nike Coach Steve Magness on Twitter. “It was the norm. It was part of the culture. It was abhorrent.”

Salazar denied all of Cain’s claims, although he was banned from track for four years after an investigation into his violation of anti-doping rules.

Soon after the release of Cain’s video, Nike released a statement: “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 centre of everything we do and these allegations are completely inconsistent with our values.”

Although Nike’s Oregon Project has been shut down, people are still critical of Nike for allowing the win-at-all-costs mentality to cause irreparable damage and for creating a culture where athletes were afraid to report abuse. It is clear that Nike still has room to improve; how they go about doing so remains to be seen.


Photo courtesy of INSIDER.COM