Where does the drive for performance end and torture begin?
It could be the question of the month given the charges leveled against Nike by runner Mary Cain at the start of the month and President Donald Trump’s Monday signing of the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act, making animal abuse a federal felony.
In a video op-ed on the website of the New York Times at the start of the month, Cain alleged she was “emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto (Salazar) and endorsed by Nike.”
A member of the U.S World Championship running team in 2013, Cain charged that after she signed with Nike’s Oregon Project, “an all-male Nike staff became convinced that in order for me to get better, I had to become thinner and thinner and thinner.
“Alberto (Salazar) was constantly trying to get me to lose weight. He created an arbitrary number of 114 pounds and he would usually weigh me in front of my teammates and publicly shame me if I wasn’t hitting weight.”
Power to weight ratio is a fundamental measure of sports performance. Greek researchers in 2017 found that for each kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight lost, running times in a 3-kilometer competition improved by 1.4 percent.
“The results of the present study showed that the reduction of 5 and 10 percent of inactive body mass may improve significantly 3km performance time without noticeable effects on metabolic parameters and are supportive of the notion that one way to maximize further running performance is to reduce inactive body mass,” they reported to an American College of Sports Medicine conference.
No one argued with the conclusions because they’ve been well-known for a long time.
As running writer Alex Hutchinson later wrote at Runner’s World, “I’ll confess, right at the top, that I don’t love writing about how losing weight will make you faster….But hey, we’re all curious about the numbers.”
Salazar, one of the most famous marathon runners in U.S. history before becoming a coach, appears to have been especially curious about Cain’s numbers.
Cain said the Nike program, which she claimed drove her to thoughts of suicide, was emotionally and physically abusive. The international agreed-upon definition of torture per the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment says this:
“Torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted….”
Cain’s description of what happened at Nike borders on torture, but she was a willing participant and that alters the perspective.
There used to be an old joke in adventure-racing circles about a competitor captured by the French Foreign Legion and subjected to extreme torture after which he was asked what he had to say for himself.
His answer was simple: “How far to the next checkpoint?”
Adventure racers abuse themselves because that is what the competition requires. Cain abused herself, or accepted the Nike program’s abuse, because she decided – for whatever reason – that the costs were worth the benefits.
When it comes to competitive sporting events involving animals, however – say, for instance, Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race – the issues get a whole lot more complicated.
Competitive Iditarod dog drivers run skinny dogs because skinny dogs run faster. They have long defended this practice as musher Kate Palfrey did in an interview with Discovery News by referencing professional endurance athletes.
The short answer would be this: plenty of them, but none who are competitive.
The average marathon finishing time in the U.S. is now 4 hours, 40 minutes and 55 seconds, according to Runner Click, which crunched global numbers for 2014 to 2017 in what the website called “The Largest & Most Recent Marathon Study.”
To be competitive in even small, local marathons, a woman has to run at least an hour faster than that time and a man at least two hours faster. The male winner of the Anchorage Mayor’s Marathon this summer ran 2:27:19 while the female winner clocked 3:05:49.
Both would be described as “lean” if not skinny. But their weight was their choice.
Dogs don’t get a choice. People control the weight of their animals by how much they feed. Fat or skinny, what this means is open to a whole lot of debate although there is agreement in some areas.
Approximately 25 percent of dogs are now obese and more than half are overweight, according to Vet Street. And the Pet Health Networks estimates obesity takes two years off the life of the average dog, along with increasing the risk of various health problems.
Meanwhile, study after study has concluded that calorie-restricted diets increase lifespans for dogs, humans and other animals. Thus it can be argued Iditarod mushers are doing dogs a favor by keeping them skinny.
How that sells nationally is anyone’s guess.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the latest in a line of animal rights groups to attack Iditarod, have yet to describe the 1,000-mile race across the wilds of Alaska as “torture,” but it’s only a matter of time now that PACT is making animal abuse a federal crime.
The Humane Society of the United States, which almost put the Iditarod out of business in the 1980s, was today “hailing the new law as a defining moment for establishing federal protections for animals. While all 50 states have felony provisions against animal cruelty, there’s no federal ban against animal cruelty and torture. There was a gap in the law. As a result of the PACT Act, federal law enforcement and prosecutors will finally have the tools they need to go after those who commit malicious acts of animal cruelty within federal jurisdiction with the full force of felony penalties.”
The act exempts ”the slaughter of animals for food; hunting, trapping, fishing, a sporting activity not otherwise prohibited by Federal law, predator control, or pest control; medical or scientific research; (actions) necessary to protect the life or property of a person; or (activities) performed as part of euthanizing an animal.”
It makes no mention of the use of animals in competition.
The legislation was originally introduced to ban “crushing videos,” the snuff films of animals. But in the legislative process “the term ‘animal crushing” came to be defined as any “conduct in which one or more living non-human mammals, birds, reptiles, or amphibians is purposely crushed, burned, drowned, suffocated, impaled, or otherwise subjected to serious bodily injury.”
The law leaves a lot of latitude for U.S. attorneys to determine what exactly constitutes a crime, and it could be argued Iditarod subjects a lot of dogs “to serious bodily injury.”
Every year during the race, dozens are dropped along the trail because of injuries and, on average, one or two die.
If nothing else, the legislation provides more leverage for animal rights activists now aggressively harassing Alaska’s Last Great Race.
Writing at Reason, Jacob Sullum warned that though Congress is using the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution to extend federal protection to animals, “this understanding of the Commerce Clause converts it into the sort of general police power that the Constitution reserves to the states.”
Or once reserved to the states. The lack of a federal law gave them room to establish their own standards reflecting the views of state residents, and views have historically varied considerably from state to state.
California, where greyhound racing on an oval track began in 1920, stopped that practice long ago. The sport was big in Florida for decades after, but voters in Florida last year voted to ban greyhound racing there, too, after critics leveled accusations against the greyhound tracks similar to those now being thrown at Iditarod.
When it comes to animal sports, traditions are proving hard things to hold.