Toxic Masculinity, Running, & Eating Disorders
Masculinity is not toxic, just as feminism is not toxic, just as anything is not toxic until it hurts the self or others.
The past few weeks have been madness in the running community. Nike's infamous Oregon Project has shut down in light of renowned Nike coach, Alberto Salazar, receiving a four-year ban from the sport on doping charges. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency banned Salazar under charges of trafficking testosterone, infusing athletes with a prohibited amount of L-carnitine, and tampering with doping controls.
Meanwhile, a promising young standout and 1000 meter world record holder, Mary Cain came forward in a New York Times interview accusing Salazar of emotional abuse, manipulation, and creating a toxic culture that culminated in Cain developing an eating disorder, losing her period, numerous injuries, and suicidal thoughts. Her performance steadily declined, and while the running world wondered what happened to Mary Cain, no one could possibly fathom the darkness she endured, until now.
In the wake of Cain opening up about this abuse, numerous female athletes who ran for Nike corroborated her story of a toxic culture that overwhelmingly impacts women; Kara Goucher, Lauren Fleshman, and Amy Yoder Begley to name a few. Fleshman states, "America loves a good child prodigy story, and business is ready and waiting to exploit that story, especially when it comes to girls. When you have these kinds of good girls, girls who are good at following directions to the point of excelling, you’ll find a system that’s happy to take them. And it’s rife with abuse.”
In the days since the Times article dropped, the running community has grappled with these allegations in various ways. We are uncertain how or if sexism played a role, and many of us are unable to articulate how important weight is or should be in the sport of running itself. Many people (mostly men) have argued that, in running, weight does matter, that Salazar was just trying to help his athletes perform, that he wasn't trying to bully them.
Salazar's recent statement underscores this, “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.” In the same breath that Salazar admits to "callous" behavior, he denies abuse and gender discrimination. Of course, he doesn't get to determine if his actions were abusive-imagine if the average criminal or sex offender were granted such freedom.
I'm going to break down how and why Salazar's actions, and more importantly, how the culture Salazar was functioning in, are toxic, gender discriminatory, and misogynistic. Although nobody except his athletes know what it was like to function in his sphere, thousands of runners from the professional level, to the collegiate, all the way down to high school, have fallen victim to a toxic system that perpetuates emotional manipulation, disordered eating, and chronic injury.
The problem is wider and deeper than Salazar. He is just one big cog in an already toxic culture, the primary differentiating factor being that he was one of the most prestigious and powerful.
This is an important conversation to have, and one I hope to explain with some degree of clarity.
When training to run very fast, weight does matter. When most people think of reaching their goal weight, they usually think about losing pounds, but sometimes, the opposite may be necessary. When coaches or culture emphasize low weight as the key to success, athletes can dip into unhealthy weight ranges that compromise their ability to perform. There is a wealth of anecdotal evidence of this: runners losing weight, experiencing a short period of increased speed/performance, plateauing, being sidelined due to injury, and a slow, gradual vanishing from the lead pack, or the pack entirely. As Cain shrunk, she endured injuries that hindered her ability to train or run fast. To be blunt, starvation is not a smart training method, ever. And coaches often place undue importance on the weight of athletes because it is easy, because it is visible, because they don't want to do the harder work of figuring out what else in their training plan may be amiss.
As many as 62% of collegiate female runners report disordered eating habits, and an astounding 80% of collegiate coaches are men. These men are not entirely to blame, but the athletic system continues to swing heavily patriarchal, favoring men, and hurting women. The irony is tangible: female athletes damaging their bodies to perform well are often doing so under the direction of male coaches, who are rewarded financially for their athletes performances. This has the gross side effect of coaches treating athletes (read: humans) as if they are disposable or replaceable, (read: coaches aren't that invested in keeping athletes physically/mentally healthy as long as they perform).
Anyone who has ever tried to influence people will tell you that bullying is a not a sustainable tool, and bullying is exactly what Nike's athletes have reported. Public weigh-ins and public shaming. Praise for losing weight and punishment for gaining, often within small, inconsequential windows (1-5 pounds). Threats to cut them from the team, manipulation and narcissism galore. Misogyny is a tool of the patriarchy. As a quick recap, patriarchy is "a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it." And misogyny is: "dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women."
Salazar has been accused of gender discrimination not because he was ONLY bullying female athletes and not their male counterparts, but because he was utilizing his power to assert dominance, control, and manipulate female athletes. If he were not in a position of power, he could not have shamed them so harshly. Patriarchy gives him this power, and teaches him misogyny (that he somehow has the right to shame and control women). It's important to note that patriarchy and misogyny do not only live in men. Women can also benefit from the patriarchy. Female coaches can shame and abuse athletes too, it's just much less common, if only because there are far fewer female coaches.
Nike and Salazar have sat at the pinnacle of this toxic culture for a very long time. The reason so many athletes have remained silent for so long is the same reason rape victims don't always come forward to accuse their abuser, or why women laugh off sexist jokes instead of "making a scene." We are taught to be "good" and that "good" equals silent. We are taught to not cause problems. In situations of unbalanced power dynamics, we lose every time.
Salazar was a powerful coach, and if a female athlete challenged him or complained about his treatment, he had the power to kick her off the team, ruining her chance at a professional running career. This is no different than a woman accusing a powerful man of sexual assault only to have her situation worsen while his remains relatively unscathed. The best way for Nike to fix this and save their brand is to create top down change. Listen to their female athletes. Support them and celebrate them, instead of shaming them for their womanhood. This is the way the tide is slowly turning, and if Nike fails to keep up, they will inevitably fail. My heart and thanks goes to Mary Cain and every female athlete who identifies with her story. So many of us have been there, she just had the guts to say it.