As the 2008 Summer Olympics are about to begin in Beijing, it’s a good time to reflect on the role eating disorders have played among Olympians and other elite athletes.
Perfectionism, the desire to please, and a fierce work ethic are among those traits essential to the making of an Olympian. They are also among the most common characteristics of the classic anorexic. It’s no surprise, then, that elite athletes are especially vulnerable to eating disorders, especially when the athlete’s specialty falls into the category of so-called “thinness-demand sports,” which call for maintaining a low weight. Included among these high-risk sports are gymnastics, wrestling, rowing and cycling, all of which are summer Olympic sports.
The link between athletics and eating disorders was underscored in a study published this month in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, which found that university undergraduate women who actively participate in sports are more vulnerable to eating disorders than those who don’t regularly exercise. The higher the anxiety about sports or exercise-related performance, the more likely these women were to experience eating disorder symptoms and body dissatisfaction.
Nadia Comaneci and Kathy Rigby both suffered from eating disorders, as did USA tennis player and two-time Olympic medalist Zina Garrison. German Olympic rower Bahne Rabe’s eating disorder reportedly killed him at age 37 in 2001.
In her recently published memoir Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics, Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympics Dreams (William Morrow), author Jennifer Sey describes her path to becoming the 1986 U.S. national gymnastics champion. Comments from coaches such as “I don’t coach fat gymnasts” turned her into a self-punishing anorexic who kept her weight down through a steady diet of laxatives. Sey didn’t make it to the 1988 Olympic team even though her mother, whose whole life had been devoted to grooming a champion, promised, “I won’t let you eat, I’ll lock the cabinets,” and said, “You’re not going to throw this away after all the time and money we’ve spent.”
Another example: On July 28, world women’s cycling champion Marta Bastianelli tested positive for a banned stimulant during a qualifying competition for the Olympic Games. Bastianelli claimed that the substance identified was not a performance-enhancing drug but part of a mix of herbs a naturopath had prescribed to help her lose weight. After a bit of unplanned weight gain, Bastianelli had been advised by her Italian cycling team coaches that she needed to lose weight.
The takeaway lesson for parents here is that sports, especially when practiced in a highly competitive and pressured environment, put a child or adult (especially one who is genetically susceptible) at risk for an eating disorder. Be vigilant and make sure your child’s coach is not making overt comments about weight, shape or size. As Jennifer Sey, who now suffers from the physical effects of her long-term eating disorder, found out, pursuing a sport at the risk of your health is just not worth it.
Marcia & Nancy