It Will Take Female Coaches to Protect the Next Mary Cain
Track and field’s toxic male-dominated culture not only abuses women, it denies them allies
Last week, former high school track phenom Mary Cain published a New York Times op-ed about what she said was abuse at the hands of “the world’s most famous track coach,” Alberto Salazar, at the Nike Oregon Project when she was just out of high school. An all-male coaching staff admonished her to slim down, and she says Salazar ridiculed and shamed her in front of her teammates if her weight topped 114 pounds — a number he’d arbitrarily chosen.
Alone, scared, and trapped, she fought suicidal thoughts and began to cut herself. When she told Salazar about this self-harm, she says he brushed her off. “I got caught in a system designed by and for men, which destroys bodies of young girls.”
Cain issued a call to action: “We need more women in power.” But making that a reality won’t be easy, say those who’ve been through the system.
The coaching profession is “very inbred to a degree, and that hurts women, because they’re not in that club,” said Steve Magness, who served as a coach and scientist at the Nike Oregon Program from 2011 to 2012 and is now the head cross-country coach at the University of Houston. When he was a runner at University of Houston, his cross-country coach was a woman, “People would ask, what’s it like being coached by a woman? Can she be tough on you? Honestly, that never crossed my mind, she was a great coach and we had a great relationship,” he says.
“The guy interrupted me and said, “I don’t care about fun.’”
The Nike Oregon Program, by contrast, “was like an old boy’s club,” Magness said. “It was Alberto and his friends and Alberto was the be all and end all.” Magness became disillusioned and left the program after realizing that Salazar was giving his athletes medications that appeared to violate anti-doping rules, and he became a whistleblower in a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency investigation that last month resulted in a four-year ban for Salazar and a doctor associated with the team (they are appealing).