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No, Mary Cain Is Not A Hero

No, Mary Cain is not a hero. 

She's just another frustrated former athlete eager to cast blame for her personal failings and her misjudgments of a high-profile program and myopic coach. 



In news this week, former Nike distance runner Mary Cain has lambasted her former coach and program by attributing her personal traumas to a “system” abusive toward women. 

In her scathing expos√© of Nike’s Oregon Project, Cain points to coaches who encouraged her to get “thinner, and thinner, and thinner” in order to compete with the world’s best. 

In her diatribe against Salazar, Cain claims that he “created an arbitrary number of 114 pounds” as a target weight for the 5’ 7” athlete. 

To get a better idea as to why Salazar might encourage his athletes to cut weight, we might benefit from an assessment of the body mass index (BMI) readings for the top female middle-distance athletes at that time. 

To simplify the data, we’ll take a look at the BMIs for each female athlete who competed in the 2012 Olympic finals in the 1500 meters. 

In compiling this data, we find a BMI range between 16.1 and 19.5; a median value of 18.7; an average value of 18.3; and a mode of 17.8. 

Where would a weight of 114 pounds place the 5’ 7” Cain? As it turns out, this target weight would place her just above the mode at 17.9; weights of 117 pounds and 119 pounds would match the mean and median, respectively. 

So, in order to satisfy the range between the mode and the median, Cain would have to maintain weight between 113 and 119 pounds. 

So, while Salazar’s standards were undoubtedly high, they were in alignment with the field of competition. 

Ultimately, the coaching staff at Nike’s Oregon Project (NOP) were assigned the task of leading the world’s best athletes to their optimal performances. 

In this competitive space, athletes and coaches do whatever they can to secure an advantage over the competition, who are just as motivated to do the same. 

Just as with every major sport, there is nothing particularly healthy about competition at the highest levels. 

The punishment endured by the athlete in pursuit of greatness, whether by impact or fatigue, takes an unimaginable toll on the body. 

This is the sacrifice of every athlete in pursuit of excellence. 

Mary Cain could have settled for any number of other running programs across the country, but she elected to join the NOP because of the perks and their relentless and uncompromising pursuit of excellence. 

She could've settled for a paltry wage, or more modest goals, as she pursued her running dreams, but she went with the more lucrative option, the one that offered her the best chance of realizing her athletic potential. 

Now she's bitter because it didn't work out as imagined, that the journey came with some serious trade-offs. 

As adults, we're responsible for our own decisions and for guiding our own children. 

Cain wasn't a 14-year-old student-athlete at the mercy of preying coaches; she was a young adult who freely made the decision to join and remain with an elite athletic program for a period of four years. 

Under Alberto Salazar's direction, Cain enjoyed unparalleled success as she set national high school records in eight track & field events from 800 meters to 5,000 meters. 

She joined a team of athletes dedicated to relentlessly competing at the very top of their sport. 

Just as with any demanding job, it's the responsibility of the worker to determine her limits. 

When a wage-earner finds the nature of her work no longer acceptable, she is welcome to quit at any time. 

She is bound by no obligation to suffer any longer than she consents. 

And where we find the laborer who's bitter about her experience, we find a concrete cautionary tale against ignoring those conditions, and concomitantly the importance of wise parental guidance. 

In the case of Mary Cain, we find a troubled athlete lacking in wisdom and guidance from her parents. 

The rallying cries against Nike serve only to distance Cain from the cold and sobering truth that she and her parents were responsible for her traumatic and horrifying experience during those four years; after all, nobody else is responsible for her decisions. 

However, I'm also willing to bet that Cain was smitten with the sweet taste of success afforded her by the NOP, which is likely why she remained with the team for as long as she did, and why she asked to rejoin the team earlier this year.

Of course, her application was eventually denied, and when Salazar was later embroiled in an unrelated scandal, Cain seized the opportunity to pounce on Nike and her embattled coach.  

This particular movement against Nike and the so-called "system" forms a weak disguise for what amounts to women who regret tricking themselves into mutilating their bodies for athletic advantage. 

Women are inherently endowed with anatomical qualities that, if we were to afford ourselves a moment of honesty, are generally incompatible with the sport of competitive running. 

Women have a much higher floor for healthy body fat percentage, whereas men can manage at levels just above zero. 

For instance, according to the American Council on Exercise, the essential body fat range for men is between two and five percent; for women, that range is between ten and thirteen percent. 

This means that men can get much closer to their absolute athletic potential without any serious sacrifice of health, whereas women in pursuit of their absolute potential naturally incur a trade-off by way of health and longevity. 

This isn't the fault of Nike; it's just the natural state of human affairs. 

In the case of Mary Cain, we find a disgruntled former athlete who's found a new disguise for her immaturity; who has, instead of taking ownership over her mistakes, launched a social campaign against a popular punching bag. 

Fortunately for Cain, she won't have any difficulty recruiting for her entourage. 

Unfortunately, this also means the affirmation will keep her from growing up.

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