I must confess... I’ve given my life to a sport that literally is killing me and could care less if I die.
With the recent news about the professional training group Nike Oregon Project shutting down due to drug findings, Mary Cain speaking out about mental and physical abuse endured by coaches and Nike, and even the largest athletics circuit in the sport cutting events from the schedule, hopefully eyes have finally opened about the truth on professional athletics (track & field).
The Olympic dream is a prestigious dream to have, anyone would kill to achieve it. Truth is, it’s nothing more than that, a fairy tale that belongs in fiction storybooks created to inspire anyone to go after dreams. Somehow, we miss the small print at the bottom that suggests the dream be anything but going to the Olympics.
2011 was a year to remember. I just finished a very successful collegiate career where I reached several All-American statuses, All-Big12 and All-SEC teams with several school records rewritten. If this were the NFL draft, I would have been a certain first-round draft pick, ready to call my mom and tell her that ‘We Made It.’
Unfortunately, this was athletics, a sport that is seen as more of a hobby in the U.S. than an actual career.
I had a choice to make about my future, one that either involved running after a life-long passion, or being ‘responsible’ and prepare for the workforce. I tried to do both; I continued to train without sponsors and started my first year in Law School. Speaking from experience, you cannot be half-in for either one of these pursuits, and my body made sure to tell me. Although, at the time, you wouldn’t have guessed.
U.S. National Championships, the competition where dreams are either made or broken, comparable to a NFL combine and Superbowl mixed in one. To become sponsored and make a living in this sport as a U.S. athlete, one big step is to make a World Championship/Olympic team, otherwise Nike/Adidas/etc could care less about giving you a salary. You could also become a ‘professional’ by winning a NCAA championship, but the salary is bare minimum. Either way, I made a World Championship team!
I could remember calling my family with these specific words, ‘We Eating!’
They knew the year I had gone through to get to that point, with law school and hard training. We had this misconception that to be signed by Nike would be as lucrative and substantial as we could have ever imagined. Looking back now, that was probably the happiest I have ever been in this sport to this date. Nothing has reached that specific moment since, a sad realization as I write this.
I quickly learned the voice I had as an athlete was non-existent. I had offers to sign with Nike, Adidas, and Saucony, and like any wise person would do, you would hold out and see who can offer the most. I ended up signing with Nike, a decision that opened my eyes to true corruption, and maybe the eventual downfall of this professional sport.
Fast forward to a question many people had regarding the reason for switching from USA to Samoa. After the 2012 Olympic Games, I aged out of my mother’s medical insurance, and needed health care desperately (another story that you may already know). Being one of the top ranked athletes in the world, one of the benefits from USA Track & Field was health insurance. Though, when I applied for this earned benefit, I was denied, more than once. I tried to speak out on the unfairness and quickly realized the control Nike had on the entire sport. I immediately received a notice that I was no longer contracted by Nike.
I’ve never felt so alone as an athlete. I couldn’t get into the big competitions to earn money, and I couldn’t find a coach that would help train me because the best ones were all affiliated with a sponsor.
Through the years, I’ve developed an unhealthy sense of failure, constantly trying to prove myself to the standards of this sport. I was made out as a traitor and lost many friends on the circuit when I traveled. I was, or at least I felt like I was a cancer that nobody wanted any part of. I sat alone when traveling overseas, I had my own uniform in a field that either had a Nike or Adidas kit on. Something that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but for us, to be unattached at large meets showed that nobody believed in you enough to let you on their team. You haven’t ‘made it.’ I even was scrutinized by the new federation and region I joined.
All I wanted to do was run and use this talent given by God, but the world told me otherwise.
However, when I go back home, I would get hundreds of messages from fans and family who expressed how proud they were of me. I was torn between fighting for an identity in this sport or abandoning the love that I have always had for running.
True pain is never experienced until you let down the ones you greatly love. I suffered in silence because I couldn’t tell my family. You hear them brag proudly to friends about how I was an Olympian. You hear young kids run to you and express how I inspired them, and they wanted to be like me. You read how a whole country begins to support you and uses your name as a means of power.
I went to the 2016 Olympic Games with $211 in my bank account. I returned with even less.
But it would have been disrespectful to disregard all the congratulation messages and all the ‘I’m so proud of you’ talk, so I stayed quiet.
Now I’m at a point where I’ve lost more than my confidence, I’ve lost people, opportunities, years of my life because of the sacrifice I’ve made to try and prove to myself that this was worth it.
My last race, I didn’t think I’d even live to make. Since then, I’ve been bedridden with pain and suicidal in thought. But more than just losing my life, I’ve lost the person who showed me what it means to truly love, and I’ve even lost a friendship from an unlikely friend who treated me like family, teaching me so much about life and business.
This delusion of being a professional track athlete and Olympian is sick, corrupted by those making money off athletes, and disposing them with no regards. Outside the sport, I’m forced to make a living off chasing likes and follows for companies to profit from. I am forced to accept a quick buck to sell my soul and integeity just so I can pay for hospital bills.
Mary Cain's story is only one of hundreds of stories of abuse this professional sport has provided. Its unfortunate that many more in her position are too scared to talk, or even realize. To make matters worse, every year there are more disillusioned athletes aspiring to call themselves a professional track athlete, accepting the offers from Nike-like companies that devalue everything they are and everything they’ve worked for.
Just as in anything we do in life, we must know our own worth and live to that standard, or you will fall to the deceit from others.
The best advice I have for anyone with a dream to be a professional track athlete: Receiving a collegiate scholarship is the Olympic Dream, everything after that is just a Nike-constructed hell.
END OF PART 1
Jeremy Dodson is a Track & Field Olympian who struggles with the idea of perfection, hoping to break the barrier we place on ourselves so that genuine living can take place for everyone.