Athletes and Eating Disorders

The following report was written by Colleen Thompson, (1996).

Eating disorders continue to be on the rise among athletes, especially those involved in sports that place great emphasis on the athlete to be thin. Sports such as gymnastics, figure skating, dancing and synchronized swimming have a higher percentage of athletes with eating disorders, than sports such as basketball, skiing and volleyball.

According to a 1992 American College of Sports Medicine study, eating disorders affected 62 percent of females in sports like figure skating and gymnastics. Famous gymnasts Kathy Johnson, Nadia Comaneci and Cathy Rigby have come forward and admitted to fighting eating disorders. Cathy Rigby, a 1972 Olympian, battled anorexia and bulimia for 12 years. She went into cardiac arrest on two occasions as a result of it.

Many female athletes fall victim to eating disorders in a desperate attempt to be thin in order to please coaches and judges. Many coaches are guilty of pressuring these athletes to be thin by criticizing them or making reference to their weight. Those comments could cause an athlete to resort to dangerous methods of weight control and can do serious emotional damage to the athlete. In sports where the athletes are judged by technical and artistic merit, they are under enormous pressure to be thin, because many of the judges consider thinness to be an important factor when deciding the artistic score. In 1988, at a meet in Budapest, a US judge told Christy Henrich, one of the world’s top gymnasts, that she was too fat and needed to lose weight if she hoped to make the Olympic squad. Christy resorted to anorexia and bulimia as a way to control her weight, and her eating disorders eventually took her life. At one point her weight had plummeted as low as 47 lbs. On July 26, 1994, at the age of 22, Christy Henrich died of multiple organ failure.

Athletes with eating disorders can be at a higher risk for medical complications such as electrolyte imbalances and cardiac arrhythmias. They are already engaging in strenuous physical activity and putting a lot of pressure on the body. Having an eating disorder puts them at great risk for sudden death from cardiac arrest. It is usually difficult to convince athletes that they are in need of help because they usually believe that they will become a better athlete, and perform better, if they lose more weight.

Gymnastics is one sport where the size of the gymnast has changed drastically over the years. In 1976 the average gymnast was 5’3″ weighing 105 lbs, and in 1992 the average gymnast was 4’9″ weighing 88 lbs. Coaches and trainers really need to educate themselves on the dangers and on the signs to look for in an athlete that may be suffering from an eating disorder. They must be able to recognize when healthy training routines turn into an obsession where the athlete turns to drastic measures to become thin and succeed in their sport. Coaches should also bring in nutrition experts to educate the athletes on healthy eating and to make them aware of how important it is to eat properly, especially when involved in such intense training.

Counselling should also be made available to athletes that are suffering from eating disorders and they should be encouraged and supported to accept the help available to them. They need to be assured that they will not be criticized or looked down on if they do come forward with their problem. For parents that are putting their child into a competitive sport, I would recommend that you accompany you child to some training sessions, especially in the beginning, so that you can observe the coach and his methods of training. You do not want your child to be trained by someone who is going to put too much pressure on them to succeed. You want someone that will encourage and help the athlete to develop a healthy routine that will not put them at risk for harming themselves.

You also want a coach that will praise the athlete and be proud of them no matter what place they finish in a competition. The coaches should only expect the athletes to do their best, they should not be expected to be number one. Resorting to dangerous methods of weight control to try and succeed and win competitions, is only putting your life in great danger.

No gold medal is worth dying for.

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