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.”

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 ?? ?? Strong ties: Hayward Field, at the University of Oregon, was rebuilt with help from Nike’s $13.5 million donation
Strong ties: Hayward Field, at the University of Oregon, was rebuilt with help from Nike’s $13.5 million donation

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