Patrick Smith/Getty University of Oregon's Hayward Field
Six former members of the University of Oregon's women's track and field team alleged that they were body shamed and pushed to lose weight by coaches and nutritionists within the program, according to reporting from The Oregonian.
The women, all of whom said they left the school based on their experiences on the team, said that they developed disordered eating habits and thoughts, primarily due to the program's thrice-yearly body scans where coaches and nutritionists would analyze their weight and body fat percentages.
On the track and field team, Coach Robert Johnson has athletes get DEXA scans — an imaging test that shows bone density and body fat percentage — in the fall, winter and spring, which the women claim led to body shaming, stress and a push from the program staff to lose weight.
In a statement to PEOPLE, the University of Oregon said they prioritize student safety.
"The health and safety of our student-athletes is always our top priority, and there are many sports performance professionals on our staff that work closely in supporting student-athletes, including our medical team, athletic trainers, sports scientists, and nutritionists. Additionally, all of our coaches undergo annual training from the UO Title IX office on a variety of topics, including communication with student-athletes."
Johnson did not share a statement with PEOPLE.
One of the women told The Oregonian that before her first DEXA scan, she had not had her period in a year and a half — often a sign of a condition called amenorrhea, which is caused by malnutrition or too low body weight — which she said the team nutritionist was aware of. Still, the athlete claims, after the scan showed that her body fat percentage was 16% the nutritionist suggested getting it down to 13%.
The athlete then talked to her personal doctor, she said, and was told not to lower her weight.
"He said I already was in a situation that was dangerous for my body and that I needed to make sure I got my period back," she said.
But the experience left the athlete concerned about her position on the team and she started watching what she ate, and then binge-eating at home.
"I started worrying a lot about what I was eating," she said. "I wanted to make sure I wasn't going to get too much bigger of a percentage. That was like a big, big issue. That never had happened before I came to Oregon. I never had any issues with food. I was completely fine. I loved food."
She has since left the University of Oregon, but still has thoughts of binge eating, she said.
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Another former Oregon runner was told she couldn't go to out-of-town meets unless her body fat percentage went below 12%, and that a coach said if her weight went above a certain number she would never become an Olympian.
"That was when I started counting calories," she said, and began weighing herself daily. Based on the number, she would judge her body. If it was above what she was told to hit, "I would look at my legs, and I would say, 'My legs look like tree trunks,' " she said. "If I was below that weight, I would be like, 'Oh, I must be skinny.' In reality, two or three pounds looks no different on your body."
Another athlete said she was asked by Johnson one day if she had gone on birth control, and later asked him why. She claims he said: "Well, I noticed your hips have gotten wider, and that comes along with that kind of stuff."
The runner also said that due to the DEXA scans, "whenever I would eat a cookie, I would feel so guilty. I would be like 'Wow, it's going to make my next DEXA scan bad. I'm going to get in trouble.' "
An athlete who graduated in 2020 said she had told the University of Oregon's deputy athletic director, Lisa Peterson, that the runners were starving themselves ahead of the DEXA scans.
"I have seen and experienced an absolutely disgusting amount of disordered eating on the women's track team, all because the coaches believe body fat percentage is a key performance indicator," she told Peterson in an email.
Johnson expressed sympathy and regret to any athletes who feel they developed eating disorders from his program, he told The Oregonian.
"If these things were happening, such as binge-eating, or they were going down this road of unhealthy behaviors, hopefully we would catch it, and then give them resources to get better," he said. "The health and safety of all our student-athletes is extremely important and at the forefront at all times."
Johnson said that the DEXA scans allows the coaches and runners to talk about weight in a scientific way. "That's one thing the DEXA scan helps us do. It takes our personal opinions out of it."
If you or someone you know is battling an eating disorder, please contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) at 1-800-931-2237 or go to NationalEatingDisorders.org.