Former middle-distance runner Mary Cain has filed a $20m lawsuit against disgraced coach Alberto Salazar and Nike alleging she suffered years of emotional abuse.
Cain was considered a generational talent when she was in high school and qualified for the 2013 world championships as a 17-year-old. She was a part of the Nike Oregon Project and was coached by Salazar from the age of 16.
But in 2019 she told the New York Times that rather than nurturing her talent, Salazar’s behaviour led her to self-harm and to harbour thoughts of taking her own life. “I joined Nike because I wanted to be the best female athlete ever. Instead I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike,” she told the newspaper.
The Oregonian reported that Cain, who is now 25, filed the lawsuit on Monday in Oregon’s Multnomah County. The lawsuit alleges that Salazar forced Cain to get on scales in front of other people and criticised her weight. “Salazar told her that she was too fat and that her breasts and bottom were too big,” the lawsuit alleges.
Cain also alleges Salazar controlled her food intake, forcing her to steal nutrition bars from other athletes. Kristen West McCall, a lawyer representing Cain, also claims Salazar stopped the runner from getting help from her own parents. “He prevented Cain from consulting with and relying on her parents, particularly her father, who is a doctor,” McCall told the Oregonian.
McCall added that Nike did nothing to prevent the alleged abuse. “Nike was letting Alberto weight-shame women, objectify their bodies, and ignore their health and wellbeing as part of its culture,” she said. “This was a systemic and pervasive issue. And they did it for their own gratification and profit.” Nike has not commented on the lawsuit. Salazar has previously denied many of Cain’s claims and said he had supported her health and welfare.
“I never encouraged her, or worse yet, shamed her, to maintain an unhealthy weight,” he told the Oregonian in 2019. Salazar was banned for doping offences in 2019, and in September the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld a four-year ban on appeal.
In 2019, Salazar’s former assistant Steve Magness, who became a whistleblower, said he had witnessed the same behaviour at the Oregon Project. “At one point I was told I needed to make a female athlete lose weight,” he said. “When I showed data on her body fat being low already, I was told: ‘I don’t care what the science says I know what I see with my eyes. Her butt is too big.’
There was no adult in the room, looking after health and wellbeing. When the culture pushes to the extreme, this is what you get.” Salazar coached many top athletes during his career, including Britain’s four-time Olympic champion, Sir Mo Farah.