Nike and disgraced coach Alberto Salazar have settled a $20m lawsuit with a former athlete over allegations she suffered “emotional and physical abuse” at his hands.
Mary Cain, who qualified for the world championships as a 17-year-old and was considered a once-in-a-generation star, was coached by Salazar as part of the sportswear giant’s Nike Oregon Project for elite athletes from 2013 to 2016. The Oregonian reported on Tuesday that the case has now been settled, according to court documents. Terms of the settlement have not been released but are believed to be in the range of millions of dollars.
Cain, who returned to competition in 2020 and is now 27, told the New York Times in 2019 that: “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.”
When Cain first arrived at Nike as a 16-year-old the all-male staff convinced her that “to get better I had to get thinner … and thinner … and thinner”.
Cain, who filed her lawsuit against Salazar and Nike in 2021, added: “Alberto was constantly trying to get me to lose weight. He created an arbitrary number of 114lbs and he would usually weigh me in front of my teammates and publicly shame me if I wasn’t hitting weight. He wanted to give me birth control pills and diuretics to lose weight.
“I felt so scared and alone and I felt so trapped and I started to have suicidal thoughts. I started to cut myself. Some people saw me cutting myself. And nobody really did anything or said anything.”
Salazar, who was given a four-year ban for breaking anti-doping rules in 2019, acknowledged some of his training methods went too far.
“On occasion, I may have made comments that were callous or insensitive over the course of years of helping my athletes through hard training,” he told the Oregonian in 2019. “If any athlete was hurt by any comments that I have made, such an effect was entirely unintended, and I am sorry.”
Salazar justified his methods by saying that at the elite level it was vital for men and women to understand the impact weight has on performance. “That’s part of elite sport. Maybe that needs to change. Indeed, I have always treated men and women similarly in this regard, to treat my female athletes differently I believe would not be in their personal interests or in the interests of promoting their best athletic performance.”
Other athletes said they had suffered under Salazar. Amy Yoder Begley, who competed for the US team in 2008, said she had been kicked off Oregon Project in 2011 after being told she was “too fat” and “had the biggest butt on the starting line”. Goucher claimed that Salazar had said she was “too heavy” and “needs to lose her baby weight if she wants to be fast again” despite her running 2:24 in the Boston Marathon six months after giving birth to her son.
Salazar coached many top athletes during his career, including Britain’s four-time Olympic champion, Sir Mo Farah. In 2021, he was given an effective life ban from coaching following allegations of sexual misconduct.
Nike, Cain and Salazar have not commented publicly on this week’s settlement. The Nike Oregon Project was scrapped in 2019.