Rugged Individualist. Certified USA Triathlon Coach & NASM Personal Trainer, Men's Self Improvement Coach. President of Go Farther Sports. National Ranked Triathlete & 100 Mile Grand Slam Ultrarunner, only the fourth New Yorker to finish four of the oldest and most prestigious 100 mile ultramarathons in the U.S. in only 10 weeks.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Mary Cain, Alberto Salazar, Nike. What Can Happen At The Top Level of Sport

I’m sure everyone has seen runner Mary Cain’s allegations against Nike coach Alberto Salazar. Some of you have also seen Alberto Salazar denying those allegations. Kara Goucher and others have also spoke out against Alberto Salazar, so a lot of these claims can be pretty legitimate.

The topic of this article is not to assign any type of blame (who is saying the truth, and who isn’t) because we honestly don't know where the truth lies in this case.

But everyone who does reads this needs to understand what can potentially happen at the higher level of sport. The public needs to know so that we can shed a light on this and make sure that our elite athletes are being looked after in terms of overall mental and physical well being. The potential for abuse is very high at the top level of sport.

99% of athletes are at the lower age group and recreational levels. Most of these recreational and age group athletes are there for the enjoyment of the sport and of fitness.

When one gets to the level of the professional athletes and the Olympics, things are drastically different. There is a “win at all costs” attitude that prevails at these high levels. This might be in the form of performance enhancing drugs, in which the sport of cycling has been plagued with in the past. Or, in this case, the riskiness of diet, weight, and supplementation that is alleged with Mary Cain, Alberto Salazar, and the Nike Oregon Project.

 This is the mindset at the top level of every sport and can come with many controversial and questionable methods of coaching. Please be warned.

Coaching, on the recreational level, involves a little risk taking. There’s always the risk of an injury here and there. At this level of coaching, it’s easy to prescribe rest, allow the injury to heal, and then resume the training from there.

When it comes to the competitive level, this risk does go up. Remember that at this level, performance starts to take priority over enjoyment. With tougher workouts comes the higher chance of injury. Every coach knows this. And if an injury does happen, instead of rest, coaches will try to train around the injury. In running, that might mean riding the bike instead for the lower levels of this level, or, on the higher level, coaches take more of a risk and try to “train through” the injury, knowing that there is a big risk of the body totally breaking down.

The question is, where is the ethical line crossed?

For coaches, this line is crossed when the overall physical and/or mental well being of the athlete is at risk.

At the highest level of sport (Olympics and such), coaches and their staff are pressured to satisfy their sponsors by prescribing questionable standards to get athletes to perform at the top part of their levels. Mary Cain is accusing Salazar of some of these questionable methods, including dropping weight beyond what is healthy, to the point that women were missing their periods. Mary Cain said that losing weight included birth control pills and diuretics, which is shocking to a lot of people who listened to her story.

Remember that these athletes are performing at the edge of human potential. If what Mary Cain says is true, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. At various levels, this is what happens at the top level of all sports. Running, gymnastics, swimming, weightlifting, etc. When pushing the boundaries of human potential, Olympic coaches are faced with taking huge risks with their athletes in order to “win at all costs.” There is a lot of pressure in this country, and in others, to see our athletes win on the world stage. With winning comes fame, and endorsements, and money.

We as a society are consumed with seeing our athletes winning in the Olympics and other world stages. Hopefully this will shed light on those athletes we want to win. We have to realize that these athletes we’re rooting to win are human beings and that they might be suffering in silence under pressure through their sporting programs in order to achieve this success.

Each of us coaches also have to draw the line on this risk taking also. How far do we take athletes to the point in which they risk permanently damaging their mental and physical health? It comes down to a question of ethics most of the time. A major sponsor wants results on the Olympic stage, needs coaches that produce those results at any cost. Unfortunately, there are a few coaches that will step forward that will throw ethics and the athletes’ well being aside to produce those results.

If you’re in a family of a very gifted athlete, please be vigilant and make sure that your athlete family member is happy and healthy. He or she might not tell it to you straight, but you can most likely see telltale signs if he or she is suffering, like depression, mood swings, or even physical signs (i.e. cutting or missed periods).

If you’re a coach, please be very mindful that this is a human being that you are training, not a robot. Ethics dictate that you take his or her overall well being into consideration when training the athlete. Although we coaches always want to see results, it never should be at the cost of the athlete’s healthiness and happiness. Not ever.

Coach “Iron” Pete Priolo

USA Triathlon Certified Coach
NASM Certified Personal Trainer
Go Farther Sports

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