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13 Oct, 2021 22:57

US running starlet files $20MN lawsuit against Nike & coach who ‘warned her breasts & bottom were too big’ & ‘called her too fat’

US running starlet files $20MN lawsuit against Nike & coach who ‘warned her breasts & bottom were too big’ & ‘called her too fat’

A runner who made history for the US in Moscow has filed a $20 million lawsuit against her ex-coach and Nike over abuse she says she suffered, including "weight-shaming" as part of alleged cruel remarks about her body.

When she competed as a 17-year-old at the World Championships in Russia in 2013, Mary Cain was the youngest ever participant to represent her country at the competition and a red-hot prospect dubbed 'the fastest girl in America' by some.

That November, Cain joined Nike's Oregon Project training group, and in 2014 she triumphed at the the World Junior Championships at 3,000m – the last gold medal she would win in what had been a hugely promising career.

Seven years on, Cain has revealed that Alberto Salazar – a disgraced coach at the now-defunct project who has been indefinitely banned by the US Center for SafeSport following abuse allegations by several athletes – waged a campaign of emotional attacks on her.

In the suit filed in a county court, which says Nike was aware of Salazar's behavior, Cain claims that the coach left her deeply depressed and troubled by an eating disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress syndrome and self-harm.

“Salazar told her that she was too fat and that her breasts and bottom were too big,” the lawsuit alleges, according to Oregon Live.

“He prevented Cain from consulting with and relying on her parents – particularly her father, who is a doctor."

Kristen West McCall, a Portland lawyer for Cain, says that Nike allowed the "systemic and pervasive issue" in the interests of "their own gratification and profit.”

“Nike was letting Alberto weight-shame women, objectify their bodies and ignore their health and wellbeing as part of its culture," McCall added.

“Companies are responsible for the behavior of their managers. Nike’s job was to ensure that Salazar was not neglecting and abusing the athletes he coached.”

Three-time New York City Marathon winner Salazar has had several high-profile coaching successes, including 10,000m gold and silver winners Mo Farah and Galen Rupp at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Now 63, the Havana-born trainer helped to found the project, which was axed in 2019 after the US Anti-Doping Agency accused Salazar of three violations. 

Cain broke her silence to feature in a video about her experiences for The New York Times in 2019.

"He was the world's most famous track coach and he told me I was the most talented athlete he'd ever seen," she said in the film. "It was a team of the fastest athletes in the world and it was a dream come true.

"Instead, I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike."

Company officials, who she described as "a bunch of people who were Alberto's friends", were obsessed with telling her to lose weight, Cain said.

That led, Cain claimed, to her breaking five bones, with her parents "horrified" when they found out.

"I wasn't even trying to make the Olympics anymore," she confessed. "I was just trying to survive. So I made the painful choice and quit the team."

Cain warned at the time that the problem was systemic at Nike, which she called "all-powerful" in athletics, and urged the sport to appoint more women to positions of power.

"Part of me wonders, if I'd worked with more female psychologists, nutritionists and even coaches, where I'd be today. I got caught in a system designed by and for men which destroys the bodies of young girls," she added.

In a statement to Oregon Live in 2019, Salazar said: “Mary’s father is a medical doctor and both of her parents were deeply involved in her training, competition and health throughout the period she was coached by me.

"For example, Mary’s father consulted on medications and supplements Mary used during her time at the [project].

"Neither of her parents nor Mary raised any of the issues that she now suggests occurred while I was coaching her. To be clear, I never encouraged her – or, worse yet, shamed her – to maintain an unhealthy weight.

"Mary, at times, struggled to find and maintain her ideal performance and training weight.”

He also told Sports Illustrated: "My foremost goal as a coach was to promote athletic performance in a manner that supported the good health and well-being of all my athletes.

"On occasion, I may have made comments that were callous or insensitive over the course of years of helping my athletes through hard training.

"If any athlete was hurt by any comments that I have made, such an effect was entirely unintended, and I am sorry.

"I do dispute, however, the notion that any athlete suffered any abuse or gender discrimination while running for the Oregon Project."

Cain remains a committed runner. She is the CEO of Atlanta NY, a New York-based non-profit organization that employs professional female runners to mentor young girls in the community.

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