It took the voice of a 23-year old woman to bring down the house of cards that was Nike’s Oregon Project — a group created by the sports apparel company to promote American long-distance running.
In November, Mary Cain, one of America’s greatest distance runners, spoke out in a New York Times op-ed against the alleged emotional abuses she suffered at the hands of coach Alberto Salazar. When she did, others followed.
Cain described being told she had to maintain a certain weight, at the expense of her performance — and her health. She lost her period for three years. By the time she quit in 2016, she was at risk for osteoporosis and infertility, was having suicidal thoughts and was cutting herself. She says she felt trapped.
As a result, the sport of running is finally having a moment of reckoning.
Olympian Kara Goucher, 41, a former Nike athlete who trained under Salazar, says she tried for years to speak up on the issue. “When Mary Cain so boldly put it out there, people finally couldn’t look away,” Goucher says. “Before, female runners who spoke up were made to look like they were whining.”
While cases involving Salazar are perhaps the most famous, the ill treatment of women in the sport has long existed and is by many counts, endemic. Coaches at the high school, collegiate and pro levels push women and young girls to lose weight, humiliating them in front of peers, threatening their sponsorships and scholarships.
Much like in Hollywood, the whisper network surrounding coaching abuses was pervasive.
“We were all trying to understand why so many peers were falling through the cracks,” says Lauren Fleshman, former multiple U.S. champion at the 5,000-meter distance. “But we needed a mind-set shift from ‘This is just how it is,’ to ‘This is not okay.’”
In addition to Cain’s voice, Fleshman credits female running reaching a critical mass. “We finally have enough history of women and sports to see the positives and the negatives,” she says. “We have multiple decades of wounded women finding their voices.”
Before running’s #MeToo moment, says Goucher, coaches and agents perpetually pounded it into female runners’ minds that they should appreciate the opportunities they had. “We were made to feel grateful and small and reminded that we were replaceable,” she says. “We finally have enough women in the sport that we can go public with the fact that this treatment is not healthy.”
While women in the sport are feeling empowered to find their voices, there’s still much work to be done. “This is ugly stuff that has been happening in the sport from the beginning,” says Lori Taylor, director of track and field/cross-country at the University of Richmond. “We are at a moment of change, however, and are just beginning to see the effects of equality. We’ve come so far but we also have a long way to go.”
In this tipping point moment in the sport, involved women can see the work that still needs to be done. One big piece of that is adding more female head coaches and athletic directors at all levels. “We need more women and minorities at the top that help the right culture trickle down,” says Shayla Houlihan, who was just appointed head coach to Under Armour’s new professional team based in Arizona. “This is a reckoning moment and we can’t rest here.”
A former NCAA head coach at the University of California, Houlihan has made a point of keeping an open dialogue with her female athletes. “I constantly let my runners know that I’m an athlete myself and I can relate to them,” she says. “I want them to know that the feelings and emotions they experience are normal and that I’m here to help.”
Taylor says that women can often relate better to female coaches. “There are lots of good male coaches,” she says, “but it’s important for female runners to have coaches who understand the stresses and pressures they put on themselves and help nurture them through that.”
From Goucher’s perspective, many coaches aren’t aware of their influence. “They don’t realize how their words might fall,” she says. “If they’re praising one girl for her weight and her speed, another girl may internalize that in a negative fashion.”
In addition to more female coaches and athletic directors in the sport, Fleshman wants to see science to support the fall out from abuse. “We need to follow the model of concussion research and publicity,” she says. “We need studies to highlight the prevalence of eating disorders and RED-S [relative energy deficiency in sport] syndrome.”
RED-S syndrome is often the result of a combination of low caloric intake and exercising too much, resulting in missed menstrual cycles, low bone density and lack of energy. While there are no hard statistics on how many female runners suffer from it, research suggests that anywhere between 2 and 60 percent of all female athletes are impacted.
When female runners feel pressure to drop weight to get faster, this is often the end game. With harder stats on RED-S and abuse of power, Fleshman says there are better odds at ending these behaviors. “If schools, administrators and coaches are worried about being held responsible for these issues, behaviors will change,” she says.
Continuing the dialogue that runners like Goucher and Cain started is also critical to progress, says Fleshman. “Telling more stories about female athletes is crucial, too,” she says.
There are signs that the sport is beginning to trend in the right direction. In addition to more public awareness of the issue, big-name female runners are starting to head some leading programs in the country. In addition to Houlihan at the Under Armour project, recently retired pro Shalane Flanagan just took on the role of coach with the prestigious Bowerman Track Club. In early February, shoe brand Altra announced its sponsorship of two elite athletes, Tina Muir and Alysia Montano. Both women are pregnant.
Taylor is optimistic that, while change has been slow in coming, this moment in women’s running is a turning point.