Blinded by Obsession: being Alberto Salazar

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Screenshot from Cain’s New York Times op-ed video.

© Copyright – 2019 – Athletics Illustrated

Nelson Mandela once said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave (wo)man is not (s)he who does not feel afraid, but (s)he who conquers that fear.”

Mary Cain embodied the aphorism when she peered into the camera for the op-ed video that was published by the New York Times two weeks ago.

It is a monumental commitment to accepting what it takes to become a world-class athlete and fully dedicating oneself to the process. The decision is never made lightly.

At age 17, Mary Cain showed all the promise in the world of becoming an Olympic-calibre athlete. At age 23, she bravely walked away from her dream. She left after apparently putting up with ongoing abuse by her coach Alberto Salazar, who was the head of the now-closed Nike Oregon Project (NOP). It was an unfortunate outcome that was entirely avoidable.

Some would argue that what made Salazar successful as an athlete and coach was his obsessive behavior. He pushed himself to near death at least twice, once during competition and another while coaching. It first happened in 1982 after the famous Duel in the Sun at the Boston Marathon where he collapsed at the end and was read his last rites. In 2007, he had a heart attack at Nike after a coaching session. For 14 minutes he did not breathe. He was saved by paramedics before being taken to the hospital.

He won the New York City Marathon three times, and Boston once and after retiring, came back at age 34, to win the 54-mile (87K) Comrades Marathon. For a decade the motivation left him. Regardless, he continued to run daily and yet somehow hated it. He fantasized of having a catastrophic injury like losing the use of a leg so that he couldn’t run again even if he tried. Apparently, a prescription of Prozac brought him back. More recently, he apparently had his own ongoing prescription for testosterone.

During the 1980s, he was associated with Mary Decker-Slaney, an American middle-distance runner who tested positive for high levels of testosterone. During the 1990s, he went on record to say that in order to become an Olympic champion, athletes need to dope. There were red flags following Salazar long before he started working with teenagers Galen Rupp and Mary Cain.

Other women have spoken up about Salazar and his apparent bullying tactics. Kara Goucher who was an early whistleblower had a hand in getting Salazar a four-year ban by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Amy Yoder Begley claims that she was fat-shamed by Salazar. Dathan Ritzenhein and Cameron Levins who also trained under Salazar publicly apologized to Cain for not speaking out on her behalf.

Ritzenhein told Sports Illustrated, “She was so happy and full of joy. She was so young… As a father of a daughter who is not much younger than Mary was then, and as a coach of women, it makes me sick to see what happened to her.”

At first, Salazar had vehemently denied all accusations, more recently, he has provided a muted apology.

However, in regards to the much talked about weighing of her in front of teammates, Cain told NPR, “I think one of the biggest things for me during that experience was that some of the athletes he was weighing me in front of were my direct competitors. Not only were they teammates, but they were women that I was actually competing against in order to qualify for World Championship teams and Olympic teams. And just having, like, a direct competitor look at me as failing, I think, was, from an athlete perspective, so mortifying.”

Fat-shaming of young women (and anyone) is harmful and needs to stop, however, currently, it appears that it is primarily western women who are complaining. Why is that?

They were at the forefront of the global women’s liberation movement that started during the late 1960s and crept into the 1980s. Today’s athletes are the daughters and granddaughters of those who fought for change through protest and demonstration.

For all the right reasons, the essence of that attitude has been adopted by Generations X, Y, Z, and the Millennials.

First world nations and especially America have a weight problem. It’s a health crisis and has spiralled out of control. Type II diabetes is running rampant and obesity is the new norm. On the one hand, thin people are often urged to eat more, on the other, so-called beauty is displayed by the magic of photo-editing software to make women appear as thin as possible in photos that grace the cover of magazines and advertisements. It’s confusing at the best of times.

Western women fought hard for equal pay, equal rights and an even playing field in education, the workforce and in sports. With the gains that they have made, they are certainly not willing to take advice that can negatively affect their health on anyone’s terms but their own.

In contrast, East Africans will do anything to win.

In East Africa, being globally competitive in athletics may mean the difference between living a life of poverty or being able to own your own home or even build a school or an orphanage. For westerners, the financial sacrifice to go through the process of discovering if one can become truly elite often requires the athlete to take a vow of poverty. North Americans don’t need running per se; being competitive is primarily an intrinsic thing.

While at NOP, Cain experienced five broken bones and her menstrual cycle stopped for three years. Although it is quite common for competitive women to temporarily experience a stoppage in their menstrual cycle, three years is far too long. She took to cutting herself and harbouring suicidal thoughts – she was clearly not in a healthy environment.

For her detractors who suggest that she put herself into that predicament because she hired Alberto Salazar as a coach and that at some point she could have simply walked away, are not grasping the power dynamic that was at play.

For the record, she did walk away and for anyone in the running community to not have been alarmed by the suddenness of it and her silence on the matter following, are viewing the issue with their eyes wide shut.

It doesn’t take exceptional intellect to have anticipated that a storm was brewing in the Cain household. Her coming out in the New York Times, one of the largest platforms available to her, was a power move and it worked. Since then, Nike has announced that it will investigate the matter. Additionally, Cain’s, as well as Goucher’s testimony, has enabled others to share their stories too.

Perhaps Salazar wasn’t being cruel and sadistic because he is or isn’t a cruel and sadistic person. He likely bullied her because he is blinded by his own obsessiveness to achieve the greatest possible outcome at all costs. He would do anything for the win including die.

Cain, at 17, should have been mentored by someone with a history of healthy relationships with young women. Perhaps the Cains’ choice for a coach may have been blinded by Nike’s corporate shine and Salazar’s athletic and coaching history. Can we blame them? Not entirely, but as mentioned, Salazar was a known entity.

Salazar received the suspension that he deserved for his apparent contravention of the World Anti-Doping Agency code (a whole other issue), but he was simply doing exactly what he was always doing; being Alberto Salazar.

Hopefully, Cain can find her way back to competitive running but this time on her own terms.

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