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When Opinion Is News, What Are the Requirements?

By Sarah Lorge Butler

My initial reaction to the Mary Cain video—as a runner, a mother, a human—was shock. Cain endured some terrible treatment, and she is brave to have spoken out. 

When I watch it as a journalist, I’m perplexed. Why wasn’t the piece in the sports section, with a thorough investigation of all the parts of the story and corroborating accounts from various witnesses? Why wasn’t it a news story? 

Instead, the piece is part of an “Opinion video series.” As an opinion, it does not have a full accounting of the facts of Cain’s allegations. It omits a lot: who saw her cutting herself, where and when she sustained broken bones, which high school and junior records she set. The piece just says she set national records. The video’s final panel reads, “In an email, Alberto Salazar denied many of Mary Cain’s claims, and said he had supported her health and welfare.”

What claims specifically did Salazar deny? Many of them? Does that mean he agreed with some of them? If so, which ones? 

This much is certain: Even though the video is labeled “opinion,” it is news in the running world. So what are the journalistic standards when a piece is both opinion and news? 

The questions only multiplied with Nike’s statement that Cain had tried to rejoin the NOP in April. Did the Times know this when they published the video? If so, why did they leave that piece of information out? Including it would not have lessened the power of Cain’s allegations. 

On Twitter, runners past and present were speaking out in support of Cain and backing up her accounts. Typically those sorts of comments would be quoted in a news article; they wouldn’t turn up on social media later. 

Are running issues relegated to opinion, because the sports pages are full with news from the Giants, Jets, Knicks, and Nets? Entirely possible. I’d love to know more. But in a strange twist, the Times did cover Cain’s allegations in a news article on Friday. So the sports department reported on a piece its own opinion pages produced. Why doesn’t sports just cut out the middle step and hire Lindsay Crouse, who produced the video, as a sports reporter? 

This may seem to be missing the point. Mary Cain was treated badly; that much seems certain. But her claims could have been more credible with a full investigation behind them. 

The Times provides on a daily basis examples of how to thoroughly report on controversial topics in news, which makes this all the more confusing.  

I recently listened to a podcast with the two Times reporters, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who won a Pulitzer Prize for their work in breaking the Harvey Weinstein story. They were on Fresh Air with Terry Gross on September 10 in a segment called ”Behind the Scenes of the Weinstein Investigation.” 

In the final question of the podcast (at 39:00), Gross says, “Between the two of you, you’ve reported on so many sexual harassment and sexual assault stories, including Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, Jeffrey Epstein. But one of the things you don’t like is the catch phrase, ‘Believe women.’ I want you to explain why.” 

Kantor replies, “Actually, the spirit of that imperative is one of our lodestars. Megan and I have devoted our careers, separately and now together, to documenting women’s stories and putting them into the paper. So we do in many ways want to live and work in the spirit of that statement. 

“But there’s a conflicting impetus in journalism which is that everything needs to be scrutinized, everything needs to be checked. We believe the really solid, well-documented reporting protects women. So we have found that in our work, and we’re only speaking for ourselves and the kind of work we do, the best way to get people to believe women is to document those women’s stories really thoroughly.”

I believe Mary Cain. I don’t know if everyone will. Maybe a thorough investigation would have convinced more people.  

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About Fast Women

From 2000 to 2006, I operated a website called fast-women.com, which focused on women’s competitive middle-distance and distance running and was hosted and funded by New York Road Runners. After 2006, I continued to cover women’s running, but it eventually took a back seat to my other pursuits in the running industry.

I always missed it, but I loved the other things I was doing as well. And all along, I fully expected that someone else would take up the mantle and operate a similar website. I might feel a little sad that I wasn’t involved, but I’d be thankful for the coverage.

But all these years later, while there are more people than ever providing amazing coverage of the sport, I’m a bit surprised that no ever created an online resource that solely focused on women’s competitive running in the U.S. .

In thinking about my return to focusing on women’s competitive running, I decided that I might be able to help fans of women’s running more by focusing on consolidation of the existing content. I wanted people who are enthusiastic fans (or potential enthusiastic fans) of women’s competitive running to be able to follow the sport in depth without spending so much time hunting for information. And that’s how the Fast Women newsletter came to be (with many nudges from my editor, Sarah Lorge Butler in the preceding year), at the start of 2019. The original domain now belongs to a kayaking club in Indonesia, so fast-women.org it is.

As a lifelong fan of women’s distance running, I’ve always wished that I could nerd out with more people over the latest news in the sport. Through this newsletter, I hope to find the existing running nerds, and help convert more of you. (Don’t worry, it’s a good thing, I promise!) When the runners in the pack learn about the runners up front, they can glean information they can apply to their own running, get a big dose of inspiration, and they often learn that they have more in common with the pros than they imagined.

For weekly updates, and nothing more, you can subscribe to the Fast Women newsletter here.

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Why so many fast women?

Women’s Running published an article last week about why there are so many “fast women” (specifically in the marathon, in the U.S.) right now, and not surprisingly, I have opinions about this.

First I’ll go through their points, then add a few more.

It’s a generational thing. They point out that those who are reaching their prime today grew up after 1984, when Joan Benoit Samuelson won the first Olympic marathon for women. That is true, but it’s been true for a while now. I think in general, the farther we get from the more sexist ways of our past, the more women’s sports are going to thrive.

There’s still a lot of room for growth, and I see this all the time as a parent—boys still dominating sports on the playground, and more sports-themed onesies for boys. There will continue to be room for growth in all sports until women’s sports get as much coverage and fan support as men’s sports.

More successful female role models. I agree with this. There’s no question, for instance, that Shalane Flanagan and Des Linden’s major marathon victories inspired many women of all abilities, and success is contagious.

Big goals and the means to achieve them. The article specifically mentions Boston qualifying and Olympic Trials qualifying standards, but I disagree that that’s led to any sort of change, because those standards have been around for a long time. I do think more people want to achieve them now, partially because more are aware of them (thanks in part to social media), and there’s no question that the Boston Marathon’s popularity increased after the events of 2013.

Social media. This is true across the board, at all levels of running. It’s allowed for more information sharing about training, gear, fuel, coaches, etc. It also allows a firsthand look at what it takes to be great. You see more recreational runners than ever adopting the habits of the pros—Normatec boots, Maurten, Vaporflys, cryotherapy—it’s a dream-come-true for the people trying to sell these products. But also, when you see that someone else is getting up at 4:30 a.m. or running 100 miles per week to make their dream happen, you see that it’s possible.

Teamwork. This is true at all levels, and social media has helped connect women with similar training goals. At the professional level, there are more teams for women than ever before (but there’s room for growth there too—some top teams currently have small women’s rosters or no women).

On top of that, the pros have learned to work together. With the revival of training groups around 2000, the early word was that some coaches were finding that pro women could only train together if they competed in different events or were from different countries, which has since been proven untrue many times over.

If you haven’t read Lindsay Crouse’s 2017 article about the “Shalane Flanagan Effect,” it’s a great outline of how this has worked. Flanagan was not the first female runner to figure this out, but she was one of the more prominent ones to do so, and the ripple effect has been huge.

Now here’s what I would add:

Technology. I don’t think the role of technology can be discounted. I’d love to see what Joan Benoit Samuelson (who ran 2:21:21) could have run in the marathon in her peak wearing Nike Vaporflys, fueling with Maurten, sleeping in an altitude tent, and coming back from injury with the help of an Alter-G or underwater treadmill. Heck, even modern fabrics might have helped her.

We also know more about how to train than ever before. Altitude isn’t exactly technology, but with the rise of groups and funding for those groups, more pro women are spending at least part of their year training at altitude.

A crackdown on doping. At the highest levels, drug use has been rampant in women’s running since before women were running long distance at the Olympic Games. With the drug bust of Rita Jeptoo in 2014 came more awareness of the fact that drug testing was inadequate or nonexistent in some countries.

Next came the discovery of systemic doping in Russia, which has disproportionately affected women’s running. And then came the news that not only were athletes doping, but our sport’s governing body was aware of it and accepting bribes from athletes to keep it under wraps. So the U.S.’s best athletes are currently having more success at the highest levels partially because the sport has been cleaned up somewhat (though there’s still work to do, and Americans cheat sometimes too).

Improved nutrition, healthier runners. One of Flanagan’s (and Elise Kopecky’s) biggest contributions to running is their cookbooks. I remember eating dinner with a handful of the fastest women in the U.S. after they competed in an event in the early 2000s. I was disappointed that all of them ordered very light meals, as if they were afraid to eat too much, or at least afraid to have their competition see them doing so.

But since then, the focus has shifted from low-fat/low-calorie to fueling one’s body well. With her cookbooks, Flanagan has provided a detailed guide on how to do this, and the word has spread that a well nourished runner is a healthier and faster runner.

The talent has always been there, now the opportunities are growing. As legendary coach Arthur Lydiard said long ago, “Champions are everywhere.” The more I coach, the more I see this at all ages. So many women who think they are slow or average runners have just never really learned to train properly, or have never done enough of it to get a sense of their potential.

There have been many U.S. women with a lot of running talent for a long time now, but now, more than ever, that talent is mixing with desire, opportunity, time, support, and direction, and the results are inspiring.