Former Nike Oregon Project runners’ accounts of emotional abuse by Alberto Salazar are kickstarting a conversation about an ugly side of sports and how to change it.
Former pro runner Amy (Yoder) Begley noticed that things started to get a little strange with her coach Alberto Salazar in 2008.
“You know, it was an Olympic year and everybody gets a little on edge,” she says, during a phone interview with Women’s Running. “Alberto asked me to sign a contract stating that I wouldn’t try to be friends with team members. I was supposed to be a cordial person, but nobody on the team wanted friends, he said.”
Begley, a national champion and 2008 Olympian in the 10,000 meters, remembers Salazar telling her not to laugh during Nike Oregon Project practices. Kara Goucher, her teammate at the time, remembers it, too.
“He told me my laugh was annoying,” Begley says. “Another time he told me I was too depressing. My dog had just died and I was probably sad that day. I was told to warm up by myself so I wouldn’t depress my teammates.”
Begley joined the Oregon Project in 2007 to train with Goucher. And although Begley saw a lot of success during her time there, it was despite a lot of injuries, criticism, and manipulation from her coach.
“In December 2008, he told me [my performance] was all a fluke and that I was too heavy. He said that to be on the elite level I needed to weigh less than I did,” says Begley, who is 5-feet, 4-inches tall and had just competed at the Beijing Games. “I weighed 114 pounds.”
By 2011, after placing sixth at the national championships in the 10,000 meters, Begley was kicked off the team because of her weight, despite working closely for more than a year with nutritionist and physiologist Krista Austin (who was hired by Salazar), and even offering scan results showing the percentage of lean muscle and body fat to prove to Salazar that she was fitter than ever.
“I had gained muscle mass from the lifting they made us do, which created most of my injuries,” Begley says. “He said he didn’t care what the science said; ‘I know what I see and you have the biggest butt on the starting line.’”
Goucher also left the team in 2011 and went on to become a whistleblower in the U.S. Anti-Doping case against Salazar, revealing in 2015 that he had given her an unprescribed synthetic thyroid hormone to help her lose weight after giving birth (she didn’t take it, she says). But at the time she trained with Begley, Goucher says she just felt fortunate that she wasn’t the focus of Salazar’s ire.
“Remembering all of this makes me feel really, really bad,” Goucher says. “Amy was treated so terribly. I was relieved it wasn’t me, but I look back and I’m disappointed at who I was. It was everything being on that team—every aspect of your life controlled—and I was just relieved that I was the chosen one, that I was the favorite and she wasn’t.”
Catching Coaching Misconduct
While the picture that former Oregon Project runners describe may seem incomprehensible to some, it’s an extreme and high-profile example of a pervasive problem—a toxic culture that isn’t unique to track and field or confined to the elite levels of running. It launches a broader conversation about how athletes—and particularly female athletes—suffer in a sport dominated by often-antiquated coaching philosophies that neglect mental health, recent nutrition and fueling science, and individual physical development.
“You can’t just say, ‘this guy is just one bad apple,’ because then it’s just blaming one or two bad actors within a system that’s toxic and broken,” says Nicole LaVoi, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport. “You’ve got to bring in the best-of-the-best sport scientists to help you build a culture from the ground-up and get rid of everybody in the system that was part of the problem.”
Begley’s experience mirrors that of Mary Cain, who joined the Oregon Project under Salazar as a teen phenom, foregoing NCAA eligibility in 2013 to sign a pro contract with Nike. She moved from Bronxville, New York, to Portland, Oregon, at age 17, a national high school record holder—the youngest athlete to ever represent the U.S. in a world-championships competition, where she raced the 1500 meters.
Cain was recently featured in a New York Times op-ed documentary titled, “I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike,” in which she alleges emotional abuse by Salazar.
She describes the pressure that Salazar and an all-male Oregon Project staff put on her to become thinner in order to perform better. She was weighed in front of her teammates and publicly shamed by Salazar for not hitting the goal he demanded. Cain also says that her coach wanted her to take birth control and diuretics to lose weight (diuretics are banned under the anti-doping code).
Ultimately, Cain says she suffered five stress fractures and didn’t menstruate for three years, which are symptoms of RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport), a syndrome of insufficient caloric intake, amenorrhea, and decreased bone density that has serious long-term health effects like cardiovascular disease, infertility, and osteoporosis. It also has psychological and emotional repercussions.
“I felt so scared, I felt so alone, and I felt so trapped and I started to have suicidal thoughts. I started cutting myself,” Cain says in the op-ed.
Cain called her parents at the height of her distress in 2015, and flew home. She trained under Salazar from a distance but announced in October 2016 that she had left the team; she has largely disappeared from competition since then, though had sought to rejoin the Oregon Project in April 2019.
“I wanted closure, wanted an apology for never helping me when I was cutting, and in my own, sad, never fully healed heart, wanted Alberto to still take me back,” Cain wrote on Twitter. “I still loved him. Because when we let people emotionally break us, we crave more than anything their very approval.”
Salazar did not return messages seeking comment for this article. He issued a denial, followed by additional explanation for his coaching methods to the Oregonian. In September, Salazar was banned from the sport for four years for doping violations. He filed an appeal and the Court of Arbitration for Sport announced on Monday that a decision is unlikely before March 2020.
Soon after Cain’s op-ed was published, Nike sent a statement to Women’s Running saying it would investigate, calling her experiences “inconsistent with our values.” (Though did not respond to questions regarding who would be involved in the investigation, the scope of it, if results would be made public, and if an independent review would be considered.)
Fixing Broken Systems
In the Larry Nassar-era, the dialogue heating up in running sounds all too familiar. Cain ignited a flood of #MeToo stories from the spectrum of people competing and participating in running who have felt pressured to lose weight, suffered disordered eating, and have been ridiculed by coaches for their appearance or sent to practitioners for treatments or counseling who lacked proper credentials.
“There’s plenty of research available about training principles and creating healthy cultures for athletes,” says LaVoi. “The problem is that you have to get that research to the right people who are actually working with the athletes—if they’re a bunch of old white guys, they’re going to do what they’ve always done. The idea isn’t ‘how do we coach women?’ It’s ‘how do you coach human beings.’”
Austin, who worked with Begley and other Oregon Project members, says that athletes aren’t the only ones who suffer at the hands of a sport that demands little accountability and allows clubs and coaches to have free rein over their programs without oversight.
“One thing I will not do is bash Alberto Salazar because there’s a system that failed him just as much as a system that has failed Mary Cain,” Austin says. “While I will never support the comments that he made that are coming out now, there is a much bigger picture here that we need to stop and take a look at.
“We don’t do a good enough job educating our coaches and supporting them and putting the balances into contracts and systems—like the coaching group itself, the way USA Track & Field operates, or how sport scientists and medicine practitioners are held accountable.”
Athletes most at risk are those who are young and isolated, unable to reach out to anybody for help or have no idea who to call to report misconduct. At the professional level, runners rely on sponsorships as a primary source of income and coming forward evokes fear of losing that financial backing. Some sacrifice their health because payments are dependent on a strict racing schedules and performance bonuses.
“We need a system of external accountability, especially at any level where money is involved,” Austin says. “Whether it’s an elite athlete on a contract or an NCAA athlete on a scholarship.”
For athletes contracted by Nike, finding an independent support system appears even more complex given the brand’s heavy financial investment in USA Track & Field. (Nike has an estimated $500 million sponsorship stake until 2040 in the governing body.) But Susan Hazzard, USATF director of public relations, said in an email that the sport’s governing body “does not compromise athlete health and safety” and had it known about Salazar’s alleged abuse, it would have investigated.
One place athletes can turn to is the U.S. Center for Safe Sport, an independent nonprofit organization that partners with USATF (and other Olympic sport governing bodies) to prevent and investigate claims of sexual misconduct, physical and emotional abuse, bullying, hazing, and harassment.
U.S. coaches—whether elite, masters, open, or youth—must go through Safe Sport training and certification in order to gain credentials to USATF-sanctioned competitions and appear on the Coaches Registry. Under the policies, Salazar’s alleged behavior would have warranted a possible coaching ban for causing physical and emotional harm. Although Safe Sport does not impose any statute of limitations on reporting, it’s unclear whether any former athletes have filed a complaint that would trigger an investigation.
Ju’Riese Colón, CEO of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, says that although rarely reported, emotional abuse typically escalates over time and may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression, eating disorders, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
“And while emotional abuse doesn’t always violate the law, it certainly violates the SafeSport code, endangers an athlete’s safety and well-being, and should be reported to the center,” Colón says.
Changing the Conversation
Former professional steeplechaser Shayla Houlihan was the head cross-country coach at the University of California, Berkeley and is now coaching an Under Armour-sponsored professional training group based in Flagstaff, Arizona. She knows that the kind of problems that occurred at the Oregon Project aren’t unique—they start young, with student-athletes arriving at NCAA programs already restricting their diets because high school coaches have required them to do so, or given them misleading information about how much they should weigh to compete in a specific event.
It’s not just female runners either—many boys and men in the sport also find themselves having unhealthy relationships with food and are even less comfortable talking about it. As one of few women who’s coached collegiate men, Houlihan says being a female coach has helped male athletes come forward and ask for help, too, when perhaps that wouldn’t have with a male coach.
“Most times, kids don’t want to open up about it, so if somebody is opening the door a crack to you as a coach, you have to bust through that door,” she says. “That’s your responsibility. It’s such a vulnerable position for your athlete.”
Instead of the “old-school way of thinking,” Houlihan doesn’t approach body composition from a weight perspective and is sure to refer runners to a nutritionist for professional help. But numbers are too arbitrary to talk about, she says.
“I always ask, ‘How are you feeling?’” she says. “If people are happy and able to compete and be around their teammates, then they’re going be in a really good space.”
Now 41 and a coach at the Atlanta Track Club, Begley is trying to foster a far different environment for runners of all abilities to thrive.
“My goal is to help people make it to the next level without having to go through the same mistakes that I did,” Begley says. “I want to help them avoid pitfalls and do it in a healthy way so that when they’re done with their careers, they can be happy with what they’ve accomplished.”
Nobody denies that weight factors into running performance. But how and when an athlete’s weight is talked about is critical. “For us, weight and body composition are the last things we focus on—we focus on building up strength, developing speed, and working on efficiencies and form before we focus on weight,” she says. “If they need that last 1 or 2 percent at the end, that’s fine, but usually with athletes, weight takes care of itself. If not, we’ll hire a nutritionist for them to work with if they want it.”
Having an outside professional who can look out for the best interests of a runner removes coaches from dealing with issues in which they don’t have education or expertise, like nutrition or mental health. Austin, for example, acted as a de-facto advocate for Begley in many circumstances with Salazar.
Even so, Austin says she didn’t know until recently how bad the tension was between Begley and Salazar and emphasizes that consultants can only offer proper support if they know all the details. (Austin stopped working with the Oregon Project before Cain arrived.)
“If you hold it back, there’s very little that can be done. If she had told me that there were derogatory comments going on, on a regular basis, I’m one of the first people to shoot a rocket up someone’s rear end,” Austin says. “Part of what Alberto appreciated about our relationship was that I wasn’t someone who ever held back with him.”
Pushing For Real Change
Recruiting more women into coaching would result in a safer sport, LaVoi says.
“Coaches have a lot of power and that becomes pretty clear where the culture becomes wrong,” she says. “The more visible, the more powerful, and the more lucrative the coaching position becomes, the fewer women you’re going to find. The reason why it matters is because when you have diversity in your workforce, abuse of power is less likely because you have diversity of opinions, perspectives, and safeguards.”
Although it’s hard to say exactly how many women are coaching post-collegiate athletes, there aren’t many. We do know that cross country and track and field received an “F” grade in the NCAA for having less than 24 percent of teams coached by women. During the 2018 Division-I cross country season, for example, 73 women were head coaches compared to 278 men, according to a study by the Tucker Center.
But women can’t do it alone. “Unless you have men actively being allies and giving women opportunities in the system, nothing will change,” LaVoi says. “If you’re a man at a coaching clinic and you’re asked to be on a panel and it’s all men, step off and tell them, ‘there are 10 women I know who’d be just as good, call them, I’m out.’”
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Recently retired from professional running, Shalane Flanagan, a four-time Olympian and 2017 New York City Marathon champion, is now coaching the Bowerman Track Club, a Nike team independent of the Oregon Project, where she trained under coaches Jerry Schumacher and Pascal Dobert. Her primary goal now is to help the woman on the team always feel comfortable talking her about their concerns, whether about weight, menstrual cycles, or anything else that might hinder training at a high level.
“I’m constantly asking them, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ I’m probably pestering them, but I always want to give them a window and an opportunity, so they don’t feel like they have to deal with anything on their own if they need help,” Flanagan says. “I’m also observing constantly—how they’re moving, what their demeanor is. I try to watch all the time and check up on them a lot.”
Flanagan knows she and the rest of the Bowerman group are facing scrutiny right now for not speaking out in the face of heightened public criticism of the way the Nike is handling Salazar’s doping and abuse allegations.
“This is not fun, but I’m hopeful that Nike will take the appropriate action and that we can be a part of the solution,” Flanagan says. “The hard work begins now. I want to figure out how our team can help guide a culture change in our sport.”
Flanagan gives credit to Cain and Goucher for their efforts to expose the serious issues—without their courage to speak out, there’d be no opportunity to fix the problems.
“I hope that they feel we support them,” Flanagan says. “They took on a big burden and we’re in a position to effect significant positive change because they were willing to shine an important light on these topics.”