PORTLAND, Ore. (KGW) — A group of athletes is calling out the University of Oregon's track and field program, claiming unhealthy practices that led to body shaming and eating disorders.
Freelance writer and retired Oregonian sports reporter Ken Goe broke the story. He said it started last summer when he received emails from six female track and field athletes, all of whom competed at the University of Oregon then left the school, five with eligibility remaining.
“I didn't really seek this out, I was retired; I didn't plan to spend two months working on a story,” Goe said. “Once I did, I was struck by how big an impact it had had on these women's lives.”
Goe said the athletes had concerns about the way Oregon’s head track and field and cross country coach, Robert Johnson, was running the program. Since becoming head coach in 2012, Johnson has racked up multiple national titles. But when it comes to athletes' health, Goe reported in The Oregonian that the women felt devalued. They also felt at risk for eating disorders.
The athletes blamed the program's data-driven approach to their weight and body fat percentages. Three times a year, all track athletes are required to undergo a DEXA scan, which uses X-ray technology to measure bone density and body fat percentage. Athletes who didn't meet certain standards were assigned extra cardio workouts. Some said they were told they couldn't travel to away meets if they didn't lower their body fat percentage. Athletes told Goe that it led to eating disorders, emotional distress, body dysmorphia and nightmares.
“Instead of realizing their dreams, it crashed on them,” Goe said. “They're in their room at night counting calories or bingeing or just feeling bad about themselves because they're not at a certain body fat percentage. You start to feel like, well, they need a voice, right?”
Goe said all six athletes asked to remain anonymous. He said they were scared of being ostracized by longtime Oregon sponsor, Nike, or being banned from the world's biggest track meets — most of which are hosted by the University of Oregon.
“For these women to come forward, even anonymously, and speak out in this situation I think is remarkable, because they're taking a risk,” Goe said.
That risk is something many are applauding at a critical time in the sport of track and field. This month, former Nike distance runner Mary Cain filed a $20 million lawsuit against Nike and former coach and Oregon star Alberto Salazar. She's claiming emotional abuse, including fat shaming that led to an eating disorder. In a recent interview with KGW, Cain's attorney, Kristen McCall, shared her thoughts on what she believes is an industry-wide problem.
“These athletes who've been abused and neglected have the strongest drive and commitment to themselves that I've ever seen and then it gets exploited,” McCall said.
In response to Goe's article, University of Oregon spokesperson Jimmy Stanton provided KGW with a statement that read in part, "The health and safety of our student-athletes is always our top priority, and there are many sports performance professionals on our staff that work closely in supporting student-athletes, including our medical team, athletic trainers, sports scientists, and nutritionists."
Since posting his article, Goe said he's been hearing from athletes from multiple schools with similar stories. He hopes his work will help makes a difference, starting at Oregon.
“I don't necessarily think that Robert Johnson is a bad person,” Goe said. “I think he's doing the best he can do; he's paid to win meets and produce national champions. I think he should approach this differently in the future and hopefully I think he will.”