Peter Westbrook, who fenced on the 1976 United States Olympic Team, explained that fencing teaches people how to lose. It’s a critical lesson, as people will lose, whether on the piste or in their daily lives. But the other half of the equation is that you can’t blame your way to winning. If you don’t like losing, work harder, train harder, push harder. It’s what athletes do because what they don’t want to do it lose. Not if they can help it.
I was one of the fastest distance runners to never make the Olympics. I’m certain that relative energy deficiency in sport, or RED-S, the same problem Mary Cain encountered, caused me to leave some talent on the table. I don’t mind the missed podiums, the missed chances. What gnaws at me is that nothing has changed. Until we acknowledge and respect that the female performance curve is different from the male version that sports was built on, girls will continue to face institutionalized harm.
Mary Cain was a high school runner, a phenom, who told the story of how Nike trainers pushed her to “suffering from an eating disorder and suicidal thoughts in pursuit of athletic success.” What happened to her was horrific as she as pushed to be thinner until her body rebelled.
In 2013, she was signed by the best track team in the world, Nike’s Oregon Project, run by its star coach Alberto Salazar.
Instead of becoming a symbol of girls’ unlimited potential in sports, Cain became yet another standout young athlete who got beaten down by a win-at-all-costs culture. Girls like Cain become damaged goods and fade away.
She wasn’t just “signed by the best track team.” It wasn’t done to her. Did she not desperately want to be on the best track team? Did she not want to be coached by a star? If not, she could have said no. Instead, she signed.
Millions of young women don’t become star runners and go on to lead wonderful lives. But neither Mary Cain nor Lauren Fleshman wanted to be them. They wanted to be the best there was at running. They wanted to be on the best teams with the best coaches. They wanted to do whatever they could to be the best. There’s nothing wrong with that, but then how does this become the fault of the patriarchy?
We do not currently have a sports system built for girls. If we did, it would look very different — and it would benefit everyone.
The abuse that Mary Cain described has been justified and allowed to persist for decades. It is still a very common practice for a coach to continue milking points out of athletes who are battling an eating disorder, while providing completely inadequate care. It is still a very common practice for coaches to directly create an eating-disorder culture in the name of performance by focusing on weight and appearance.
What does Fleshman mean, “a sports system built for girls”? One where slow runners win? One where the best in the world don’t try to do what they can to run faster, do better, but run pretty much like the middle of the pack but feel as if they run faster?
If sports were built for young women and girls, the focus on weight would be replaced with basic nutrition and RED-S education, which would dramatically reduce injuries and mental health disorders for all genders. Eating disorders are a form of self-harm and should be treated as such, with mandatory reporting to medical professionals for the safety of the individual. In college programs, a nutritionist and a certified psychologist who specializes in eating-disorder recovery should be as commonly available as athletic trainers. Coaches should be rewarded based on health metrics and retention of talent, rather than for cycling out athletes who burn out year after year.
Would Fleshman have been willing to sacrifice winning for her health? If so, that’s a wise choice, and one that should be appreciated. But then she’s off the team, because the sport is about winning, not being a healthy loser. Some will burn out. Some will excel. That’s the nature of sports, not an excuse to complain.
What if her coach had offered her a choice, to do what she had to do to maintain the body type that would enable her to excel and risk suffering an eating disorder, or shake hands and part ways? What if her coach was compelled, by rule requiring him to remove from the team any girl who was at risk for an eating disorder, so that the runner couldn’t make a choice that put her at risk? Would she have screamed discrimination? Would she cry about her agency? Would she demand her right to make her own body choices and take the risk in order to be the fastest in the world?
Coaches are the ones with the power. They bear the responsibility for creating an environment that prioritizes health over performance. If coaches are found to create or contribute to a culture of negative body image or eating disorders, they are committing abuse, and they should be fired.
The lesson, then, is women are powerless and bear no responsibility for their decisions. Given that young girls were involved, their parents must also be powerless, or perhaps merely unfit. Mom and dad surely saw their daughter’s body weight and shape. They likely talked with their child once in a while about how she was doing on the world stage. Nobody saw a problem? Or did everyone acquiesce to the coach since they wanted to win more than anything?
Does Fleshman think the coach was part of some secret male conspiracy to cause harm to women by forcing them to suffer eating disorders? Does she contend Lizzo should be running in the next Olympics? But the coach should be fired for “committing abuse” by doing coaching that produces the best runners in the world. You don’t have to suffer this abuse, but then, when you’re a world-class athlete and the tiniest edge distinguishes the podium from the pack, you want to do whatever it takes to win. You’ve learned to lose, and it sucked.