The Daily Telegraph
‘I confided that I had an eating disorder – they told me to lose three pounds’
Phily Bowden tells Molly Mcelwee why she quit the University of Oregon programme in the latest controversy that could have serious implications for Nike
Phily Bowden had not yet set foot on the running track at the University of Oregon, when she was asked to lose weight. The British distance runner had only arrived at her new Eugene home – one of the premier track and field college programmes in the world and the birthplace of Nike’s empire – three days previously, in August 2018.
Still jet-lagged and, after having undergone a number of introductory physical exams, the disconcerting request was put to her by the team nutritionist.
“The initial conversation of ‘here are your results’ was coupled with ‘let’s try to get a couple of per cent off that fat percentage and maybe cut a couple of pounds at the same time’,” Bowden, now 26, tells Telegraph Sport. “That’s not what I was expecting to hear.”
Bowden had been transparent with the Oregon staff about her medical history before her arrival, including her recovery from anorexia just a few years earlier.
“Having told them about my mental health, I was told to lose weight – and, in my head, ‘be less fat’. I’ve heard other people on the team didn’t have that conversation so, really, why did that happen?”
It was Bowden’s first red flag and gave an insight into the problematic culture that led to six unnamed Oregon athletes accusing the programme of prioritising data and numbers over the well-being of individuals in an environment which, they say, encouraged eating disorders. In response, Robert Johnson, the university’s head coach, retorted: “Track is nothing but numbers. A good mathematician probably could be a good track coach.”
Bowden, who represented Great Britain at the U23 European Championships as well as senior level in cross-country, has decided to waive her anonymity and speak out against a system whose over-emphasis on numbers, she says, came at a devastating personal cost.
She recalls her team-mates dreading the once-a-term Dexa scan, an X-ray which shows athletes’ bone density, body fat percentage and muscle mass, because of the scrutiny that followed. “We’d say things like, ‘don’t go to the ice cream parlour, because they’ll see it on your Dexa,’” Bowden says.
After just over a year in Eugene, and with two terms left of her masters scholarship, she pulled out of the programme in December 2019. The environment, she says, had pushed her to relapse into troubling disordered eating habits, including purging after meals after being asked to keep a food diary – something she had not done since she was at her lowest point with anorexia. “It was like going back in time,” she says. “Before the food diary, I hadn’t made myself sick. It hadn’t been an issue. But it made me ask myself, am I eating too much? Is this all my fault? It sent me to a really dark place and then ultimately to purging after eating.”
A representative from the University of Oregon told Telegraph Sport that “the health and safety of our student-athletes is our top priority”, and that Dexa scans were “optional” for students and that individual results were not shared with coaches.
They added that their medical professionals “provide the highest standard of care and the best possible experience for Oregon student-athletes”.
The accusations could yet have further implications for one of the most powerful arms of the sport in Nike, given its close ties to the university. As well as sponsoring the university’s kit, the corporation donated $13.5million to the $270million (£202million) rebuild of their track stadium, Hayward Field, which next year will host the World Championships. It was Phil Knight who founded Nike in Eugene as a student in 1964, and though the university says the multi-national corporation “has no oversight over day-to-day operations”, their power and influence runs deep.
Only a 90-minute drive down the road is Beaverton, Nike’s HQ, and where the controversial Nike Oregon Project – led by disgraced coach Alberto Salazar – operated. Doping allegations levied at Mo Farah’s former coach Salazar led to a four-year ban in 2019, but other allegations of fat-shaming, obsession with athletes’ weight and bullying were brought to light by whistleblowers Mary Cain and Kara Goucher that year. While the Oregon Project has since been disbanded, and Salazar has denied wrongdoing, practices that prioritise weight and fat percentage over wellbeing also bleed into the culture at UO, according to Bowden and the other whistleblowers.
Bowden tried to put her worries to the back of her mind, because of the university’s prestige and team of experts, which included access to Oregon Project’s sports psychologist, Darren Treasure.
‘The food diary sent me to a really dark place and then ultimately purging after eating’
Once described by Salazar as his “right-hand man”, Treasure was brought in to work with Bowden’s squad in November 2019 and was with the team at a meet only a week before Cain accused Treasure of protecting Salazar and ignoring her pleas for help when she told him she was selfharming. “After the article came out, he just disappeared,” Bowden says. “We never saw him again – he was never mentioned. But we all knew.” Nike did not respond to Telegraph Sport’s request for a comment. But Bowden says the company, as well as UO, have a duty of care to the student-athletes. “You can’t undo what’s happened, but with all the awareness, there should come a reduction of stigma in terms of mental health of athletes. You would think something as powerful and influential as Nike would want to lead the way on that.”
Since leaving Oregon in December 2019, Bowden has recovered from her eating disorder, rediscovered her love for athletics and is working with coach and former British Olympian Helen Clitheroe. “To say a great mathematician would be a great track and field coach is nonsense,” Bowden says. “You’re dealing with human beings who have lives and feelings.”