Mary Cain raises women’s health issues in harrowing account of her time with Alberto Salazar

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In 2013, Mary Cain was the talk of the track and field world. The teenager with flowing hair and an irrepressible smile shattered high school records and became the youngest woman to qualify for a world championship 1,500m final. Surely Olympic glory and global athletics stardom would be next.

Instead, Cain’s performances dropped off. She had a solid year in 2014, winning the 3,000m world junior title, the Millrose Games mile and the U.S. 1,500m indoor title, and she took second in the U.S. 1,500m final. But in 2015, she was less competitive. Her struggles continued in 2016, and she finished 11th in her first attempt to make an Olympic team.

She enrolled in Fordham, near her Bronxville, N.Y., home, and took pre-med classes while dealing with a variety of injuries. In the last three years, her IAAF bio lists no results.

“Whatever happened to Mary Cain?” became a popular question among those who follow track and field, even casually.

On Thursday, in a devastating New York Times video, she answered. Her physical and mental health were destroyed — she claims, at the hands of Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar, who contacted the Cain family while she was in high school to say he wanted to coach the prodigy.

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

Cain says she was told to lose weight — “thinner, and thinner, and thinner” — in order to get better, even to the point of taking birth control pills and diuretics. That staff, she points out, was all male. 

The problem was well-hidden. A March 2015 magazine piece, also in The New York Times, suggested Salazar was treating Cain carefully. The goal was to avoid ailments such as the “female athlete triad,” also called RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport) syndrome, in which an eating disorder and the lack of a menstrual period are related to a weaker bone structure.

“Not eating appropriately for the amount of energy an athlete expends is really the root of this syndrome,” University of Wisconsin orthopedic surgeon Andrea Spiker said in an RED-S fact sheet that says missing just three cycles is a warning sign.

Cain said she missed her period for three years. And broke five different bones.

The mental toll was worse. She had suicidal thoughts and began cutting herself. She said she brought the latter to Salazar’s attention in May 2015, a couple of months after the magazine piece painted a rosy picture but a few hours after Salazar yelled at her in front of many athletes and meet officials gathered in a tent during a thunderstorm. Her parents soon brought her home to New York.

“I wasn’t even trying to make the Olympics any more,” Cain said. “I was just trying to survive.”

But she hid the depths of her problems. As recently as last year, Cain talked with Runner’s World about building back up to run in the outdoor season and expressed no regrets about her career choices.

The author of the 2015 magazine piece, Elizabeth Weil, says today she wishes she had spotted some red flags.

“I’ve thought a lot about the 2015 Mary Cain story I wrote over the years,” Weil said on Twitter. “[Because] in hindsight I got it so wrong.”

Former Nike runner Shalane Flanagan, who last month described her training group as distinctly separate from Salazar’s, also wondered aloud if she should have noticed the problems, reaching out to Cain on Twitter.

“I had no idea it was this bad,” Flanagan wrote. “I’m so sorry @runmarycain that I never reached out to you when I saw you struggling. I made excuses to myself as to why I should mind my own business. We let you down. I will never turn my head again.”

Coincidentally, soon after the 2015 magazine piece ran, Salazar’s program fell under heavy scrutiny. In June, the BBC and ProPublica reported that the Nike Oregon Project was under investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. That investigation finally ended with a four-year ban for Salazar.

One of the former Oregon Project athletes who spoke out in the BBC/ProPublica piece, Kara Goucher, told NBC OlympicTalk she had hoped Cain would be treated better because of her age but that Cain simply wound up isolated.

“She was all alone,” Goucher said. “She had no one to support her.”

Officially, the Nike Oregon Project has been shut down, but several of the coaches and athletes are still working together. The athletes Salazar trained are a who’s who of distance running, including Galen Rupp, Jordan Hasay and Mo Farah. None of the athletes have been charged with doping, and U.S. Anti-Doping Agency chief Travis Tygart said this week he sees little reason for the World Anti-Doping Agency to investigate any further.

Now Cain wants to change the system.

“Young girls’ bodies are being ruined by an emotionally and physically abusive system,” Cain said.

Goucher agrees: “I think this is a broader problem of the way we treat women athletes as objects instead of humans.”

Cain gave a road map for reform: Change the culture at Nike, including a closer look at the coaches who worked with Salazar and continue to work with Nike athletes, and put more women in power.

And she says her running career isn’t over.

“Part of the reason I’m doing this now is I want to end this chapter, and I want to start a new one,” Cain said.

Left ambiguous is whether that statement applies only to herself or to her sport and sports in general.

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Elena Fanchini, medal-winning Alpine skier, dies at 37

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Italian skier Elena Fanchini, whose career was cut short by a tumor, has died. She was 37.

Fanchini passed away Wednesday at her home in Solato, near Brescia, the Italian Winter Sports Federation announced.

Fanchini died on the same day that fellow Italian Marta Bassino won the super-G at the world championships in Meribel, France; and two days after Federica Brignone — another former teammate — claimed gold in combined.

Sofia Goggia, who is the favorite for Saturday’s downhill, dedicated her win in Cortina d’Ampezzo last month to Fanchini.

Fanchini last raced in December 2017. She was cleared to return to train nearly a year later but never made it fully back, and her condition grew worse in recent months.

Fanchini won a silver medal in downhill at the 2005 World Championships and also won two World Cup races in her career — both in downhill.

She missed the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics because of her condition.

Fanchini’s younger sisters Nadia and Sabrina were also World Cup racers.

USA Boxing to skip world championships

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USA Boxing will not send boxers to this year’s men’s and women’s world championships, citing “the ongoing failures” of the IBA, the sport’s international governing body, that put boxing’s place on the Olympic program at risk.

The Washington Post first reported the decision.

In a letter to its members, USA Boxing Executive Director Mike McAtee listed many factors that led to the decision, including IBA governance issues, financial irregularities and transparency and that Russian and Belarusian boxers are allowed to compete with their flags.

IBA lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian boxers in October and said it would allow their flags and anthems to return, too.

The IOC has not shifted from its recommendation to international sports federations last February that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred, though the IOC and Olympic sports officials have been exploring whether those athletes could return without national symbols.

USA Boxing said that Russian boxers have competed at an IBA event in Morocco this month with their flags and are expected to compete at this year’s world championships under their flags.

“While sport is intended to be politically neutral, many boxers, coaches and other representatives of the Ukrainian boxing community were killed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, including coach Mykhaylo Korenovsky who was killed when a Russian missile hit an apartment block in January 2023,” according to the USA Boxing letter. “Ukraine’s sports infrastructure, including numerous boxing gyms, has been devastated by Russian aggression.”

McAtee added later that USA Boxing would still not send athletes to worlds even if Russians and Belarusians were competing as neutrals and without their flags.

“USA Boxing’s decision is based on the ‘totality of all of the factors,'” he said in an emailed response. “Third party oversite and fairness in the field of play is the most important factor.”

A message has been sent to the IBA seeking comment on USA Boxing’s decision.

The women’s world championships are in March in India. The men’s world championships are in May in Uzbekistan. They do not count toward 2024 Olympic qualifying.

In December, the IOC said recent IBA decisions could lead to “the cancellation of boxing” for the 2024 Paris Games.

Some of the already reported governance issues led to the IOC stripping IBA — then known as AIBA — of its Olympic recognition in 2019. AIBA had suspended all 36 referees and judges used at the 2016 Rio Olympics pending an investigation into a possible judging scandal, one that found that some medal bouts were fixed by “complicit and compliant” referees and judges.

The IOC ran the Tokyo Olympic boxing competition.

Boxing was not included on the initial program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games announced in December 2021, though it could still be added. The IBA must address concerns “around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes,” IOC President Thomas Bach said then.

This past June, the IOC said IBA would not run qualifying competitions for the 2024 Paris Games.

In September, the IOC said it was “extremely concerned” about the Olympic future of boxing after an IBA extraordinary congress overwhelmingly backed Russian Umar Kremlev to remain as its president rather than hold an election.

Kremlev was re-elected in May after an opponent, Boris van der Vorst of the Netherlands, was barred from running against him. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in June that van der Vorst should have been eligible to run against Kremlev, but the IBA group still decided not to hold a new election.

Last May, Rashida Ellis became the first U.S. woman to win a world boxing title at an Olympic weight since Claressa Shields in 2016, taking the 60kg lightweight crown in Istanbul. In Tokyo, Ellis lost 3-0 in her opening bout in her Olympic debut.

At the last men’s worlds in 2021, Robby Gonzales and Jahmal Harvey became the first U.S. men to win an Olympic or world title since 2007, ending the longest American men’s drought since World War II.

The Associated Press and NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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