By Ken Reed
Alberto Salazar is a former world-class distance runner and coach.
If the allegations brought by multiple female athletes claiming he physically, mentally and emotionally abused them while under his direction are true, he’s also a pig.
Thanks to the courage of elite athletes (and whistleblowers) Kara Goucher and Mary Cain, Salazar and his illegal and unethical practices while head coach of Nike’s Oregon Project have been exposed.
Goucher brought to light Salazar’s practice of pushing his athletes to use illegal performance-enhancing substances. He also attempted to tamper with doping controls. As a result, Salazar has been banned for four years by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).
Following the publication of Mary Cain’s story by The New York Times this week, Salazar will hopefully be banned from coaching for life.
In the Times video op-ed, Cain describes a Nike track program in which Salazar and his assistants pushed Cain to get “thinner, and thinner and thinner” until her health was imperiled and her body broke down.
By age 17, Cain was a record-breaking superstar in distance running. She was the youngest American track & field athlete to make a World Championships team.
And in 2013, she was signed to run for Salazar and Nike’s Oregon Project team, considered by some to be the best track team in the world.
It was then that Salazar began to beat her down mentally and physically by pushing her to lose more and more weight, according to Cain. Her body deteriorated and her performances suffered. She began having suicidal thoughts.
After Cain’s story appeared in the Times, several other former Nike female athletes began to speak out in support of Cain. They also told stories of receiving similar treatment at the hands of Salazar and Nike.
“After placing 6th in the 10,000m at the 2011 USATF championships, I was kicked out of the Oregon Project,” tweeted Amy Yoder Begley.
“I was told I was too fat and ‘had the biggest butt on the starting line.’ This brings those painful memories back.”
It also appears the abuse of female athletes at Nike wasn’t limited to track athletes.
Figure skater Gracie Gold appeared in a Nike ad with Cain in 2014. Gold was a child prodigy who was thought to have a chance at an Olympic gold medal. Like Cain, Gold was pushed to become thinner and thinner. She eventually developed an eating disorder and started thinking about taking her life.
“America loves a good child prodigy story, and business is ready and waiting to exploit that story, especially when it comes to girls,” said Lauren Fleshman, who ran for Nike until 2012.
“When you have these kinds of good girls, girls who are good at following directions to the point of excelling, you’ll find a system that’s happy to take them. And it’s rife with abuse.”
Nike responded to Cain’s story with 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.”
This statement infuriated Goucher.
In a tweet, Goucher wrote: “So @Nike responds to @runmarycain. Takes the time to victim shame Mary, before saying they will investigate. I hope you come to me, because I have stories to match all of Mary’s claims and so much more. Don’t let this be more lip service, actually do something.”
Cain also responded to Nike’s statement:
“I was the victim of an abusive system, an abusive man. I was constantly tormented by the conflict of wanting to be free from him and wanting to go back to the way things used to be, when I was his favorite. Last month, after the doping report dropped that led to his suspension, I felt this quick and sudden release. That helped me understand that this system is not okay. That’s why I decided to speak up now. People should never have to fear coming forward. I hope this Nike investigation is real and it centers on the culture that created Alberto. Nike has the chance to make a change and protect its athletes going forward.”
Salazar is gone for at least four years, and the Oregon Project has been shut down for now. Whether or not the win-at-all-costs (WAAC) and profit-at-all-costs (PAAC) culture at Nike will be cleaned up for good following this investigation is yet to be seen.
My heart aches for Mary Cain. And Kara Goucher. And Gracie Gold.
The WAAC and PAAC culture in this country has been over-the-top for years. But Nike and Alberto Salazar might have taken us to a new low.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans
- "How We Can Save Sports" author Ken Reed appears on Fox & Friends to explain how there's "too much adult in youth sports."
Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- Ken Reed's Author Page on Amazon
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
A League of Fans Special Report