by Staff Writer Mingxin Wang
Mary Cain was considered to be the fastest girl in her generation, becoming the youngest American to compete at the World Junior Championships in 2014. Several months later, she joined Nike’s Oregon Project, reputed to be the best track team in the world, only to be placed in a toxic system that encouraged extreme dieting. Cain’s story sheds light on an unpleasant reality for many female athletes — the abusive nature of elite training programs across the nation.
Middle Distance Runner Mary Cain
Cain was pressured to lose an unhealthy amount of weight without assistance from certified nutritionists or sports psychologists. Her dangerously low-calorie diets caused her to lose her period for three years and break five bones. According to The New York Times, “She went from being a once-in-a-generation Olympic hopeful to having suicidal thoughts.”
Cain’s story is one of many instances in which female athletes have been exploited and abused by their coaches. Despite their inhumane training conditions and mentally exhausting practices, many female athletes are often forced to continue training and lose weight just to finish in first place. Such detrimental practices often promote life-threatening eating disorders and unhealthy misconceptions about body image.
With the win-at-all-costs culture thriving in sports, Cain, who entered the sport with great potential, became yet another burnt out and injury-prone athlete. Like Cain, figure skater Gracie Gold was also on the path towards Olympic glory before she left the sport to seek medical help for an eating disorder. According to The New York Times, her battle with food began when she weighed herself in front of her coach, who commented on her weight by saying, “That’s a big number.”
Figure Skater Gracie Gold
Caught in a system that encouraged extreme dieting and promoted unforgiving physical standards, Gold was pressured to become thinner and thinner. At one point, during a competition, Gold was sobbing, cursing, and screaming, “Can’t anybody see the cry for help that is my existence right now?” Instead of addressing Gold’s unraveling mental health, her coaches only trained her harder and harder. The lack of support and abusive environment only fostered Gold’s unhealthy habits, until she was forced to leave the ice and seek treatment.
This systemic abuse has been covered up time and time again by powerful corporations like Nike and their coaches. When Cain shared her story, Nike released a statement saying, “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.” Instead of taking responsibility for the outpour of eyewitness accounts and personal narratives of exploitation and abuse, corporations chose to defend their own coaches, further perpetuating the ignorance and mistreatment towards female athletes. With an extremely high number of cases of abuse among athletes, it is imperative that companies and coaches create the optimal environment for their female athletes to train in — one without body shaming or exploitation.
Unless the most prominent sports organizations apologize for their harmful training programs and punish their coaches, there will always be more standout athletes for these flawed systems to exploit. The countless stories of abuse underscore the need for a change in the mentality of the sports industry. The lack of proper training programs combined with the misconception that losing weight is the only way to achieve success sets up many promising female athletes for failure. Coaches and sports organizations alike must take extra measures; providing athletes with certified nutritionists and encouraging them to take care of their bodies are steps that can decrease exploitation and abuse in the long run.
The fact that our self worth is often tied to conforming to others’ opinions about body image highlights this jarring issue in society. We all have flaws, but it’s vital to be proud of who we are. At the end of the day, it’s important to realize that trying to perfect your body image is not worth sacrificing your physical or mental health.