Nike said on Monday that it is planning to take multiple actions to better support its female professional athletes, following an internal investigation into the now-defunct professional running group, the Oregon Project.
The company started the probe in November after former Oregon Project athlete Mary Cain went public with a New York Times op-ed piece about her experiences as a young track star under coach Alberto Salazar, who is currently serving a four-year ban from the sport for doping violations. (Salazar denies the charges and is appealing them—Nike said in an email to Women’s Running on Monday that “we support Alberto in his decision to appeal and wish him the full measure of due process that the rules require.”)
Cain joined the Oregon Project 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, as 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.
In the documentary, titled “I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike,” she described the pressure that Salazar and the all-male Oregon Project staff put on her to become thinner in order to perform better. Cain said she was weighed in front of her teammates and publicly shamed by Salazar for not hitting the goals he demanded—allegations that were later corroborated by former members of the group.
Now 23 years old, Cain said while training with the Oregon Project and during a period afterward, 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, with symptoms that can include excessive fatigue, amenorrhea, and decreased bone density. It can have serious long-term health effects like cardiovascular disease, infertility, and osteoporosis. Before she left Oregon to return home in 2015, she said she felt so isolated and trapped that she had suicidal thoughts and cut herself.
After the New York Times piece was published, Salazar denied any abuse or gender discrimination at the Oregon Project and added, “I may have made comments that were callous or insensitive over the course of years of helping my athletes through hard training.”
In the email to Women’s Running on Monday, Nike said the results of the internal investigation will not be made public, but “we are using the findings to identify areas where we can do better in supporting female athletes.” It was not confirmed who was involved in leading the investigation or who participated in it.
The initiatives that Nike identified include:
• Investing in scientific research into the impact of elite athlete training of girls and women
• Increasing the number of women coaches in sports
• Hiring a vice president of global women’s sports marketing in the coming weeks to have “strategic oversight” of Nike’s female athletes
• Creating an athlete think tank to help the company understand the opportunities and challenges faced by female athletes
• Partnering with Crisis Text Line, a free, confidential text messaging service for people to ask for help when in crisis
During a phone interview with Women’s Running on Monday, Cain said she was contacted in the fall by phone and email by a Nike lawyer, but opted not to participate in the probe because some of the people involved were Nike employees whose participation in it made her feel uncomfortable.
“There was no real transparency in the process, so I became very frustrated with the fact that there was no clear-cut person in charge, it was Nike investigating Nike, and seemingly some of the people involved in the process were investigating themselves,” she said.
Upon hearing the actions that Nike—the biggest sponsor of the sport’s governing body, U.S.A. Track & Field (a deal that goes through 2040 with an estimated value of $500 million)—wants to take as a result of the findings, Cain said she supports anything that promotes women’s health and opportunities in sports.
“It’s great to push money and push opportunity into the future—I whole-heartedly support that,” she said. “But the vagueness and no ability to see the report makes me worried that they’re hiding behind gestures that will almost make people forget the issues.”
Runners and other athletes have identified with Cain’s experiences since she shared them, creating a public conversation about the destructive culture underlying sports, where antiquated training philosophies perpetuated by a male-dominated coaching profession often result in eating disorders and worse for athletes.
“I have this renewed love of the sport that I only really found in the last few months because I do have so much hope in what women’s sports can and will become—so anything that’s generating interest and investment and research, I’m all for,” Cain said. “What I hope can happen through some of this work is that Nike can start hearing more voices.”
Still, Cain is hesitant to put too much stock in the proposed initiatives.
“It looks both weak and cowardly that as a corporation they won’t release what they found,” she said. “There’s a certain point where people would have a lot more respect for them as a broader institution and respect what they’re now trying to do if they also admitted what they did wrong. I can’t look at a future brightly if I can’t see them reflecting on their past.”
Since November, Cain has returned to training after about three years away, with the goal of making the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in June. She most recently raced the 3,000 meters on Saturday at the Armory in New York, finishing in 9:24.38.
In December, she told Women’s Running that advocating for women’s sports and healthy coaching practices is her new dream.
“Due to lack of education and inappropriate societal norms, many people have a poor understanding of how to address topics such as women’s cycles, weight, and training appropriately,” Cain said. “My goal is now to create educational programs that coaches and athletes must take on these subjects.”