Saturday, August 2, 2008

Olympics, athletes, eating disorders, and the anxiety connection

As the Beijing Olympics near, the issue of the various aspects of sports is often discussed. Everything from the athlete stories (there are usually some very inspirational ones) to doping charges (no Olympics is ever filled without any) to what athletes are wearing (the buzz is on the new skin tight, fast swimsuits and running shoes) to eating disorders (though that one isn't as publicly mentioned).

In today's Telegraph from the UK, Susan Ringwood, the chief executive of BEAT, a UK charity which helps those with eating disorders, said that up to 40% of the female athletes at these Games could have eating disorders. She said,
"there is increasing pressure on female athletes to not only perform well, but also to look good." The obvious sports where this would likely be more apparent are gymnastics, diving, and swimming.. However, other sports to consider would be rowing,, track and field, especially long distance running, equestrian, cycling, and wrestling. I'm sure there are others, those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

Ringwood also made the point how it can be difficult to determine whether an athlete has an eating disorder when they already carefully control their food intake and exercise. She asked,
"Does someone have a body like that because they want to win a gold medal, or because they would feel useless and disgusting if they looked any different, and want to have some emotional control?"


I recently read a brief interview in People about the swimmer Dara Torres and her bout with bulimia. If you don't already know, Dara is the 41-year old swimmer who is making headlines going into her fifth Olympics with a good shot at winning the 50m freestyle. She went through a five year battle with the disorder, including at the1988 Seoul Games where the number one ranked female swimmer in the world finished seventh. So depressed after that, she retire from the sport all together. Eleven months prior to the 1992 Olympics, she knew she had to end her bulimia if she wanted to do well. She amazingly stopped "cold turkey" and has since then been recovered. Here is one article where Torres and a few other swimmers who also went public with their eating disorders talk in depth about their struggle.

The connection between elite athletes and eating disorder is now new. There have been a number of studies explaining the higher risk for disordered eating/eating disorders in certain sports as mentioned above. Last week, a new study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders showed that women who participate in a high level of athletics and have sports anxiety are more at risk for eating disorder symptomology. This is a significant study, because it looks at the factor of anxiety which has been linked to eating disorders.

So as the Olympics is only a week away, I can only imagine what some of these athletes may feel. While there is the thrill of making the team and representing their country, there is also an enormous amount of pressure which some will succumb to well and others may not.
For some, the medal will make the difference in their own lives as well as their families.

Those with sports anxiety and/or eating disorders/disordered eating may have a harder time if they are constantly worried about both their performance and how they look which we know is always just the surface issue. However, in some sense, how can they not be? They have the whole world watching them, cheering them on for their victories, yet recounting every misstep too. For some athletes, this will definitely be "16 days of glory," while for others it may be "16 days of agony." Okay, I'm being dramatic here, but you get my drift. It's a lot of pressure from all realms and is a real test to both the body and mind.

Related posts: The female athlete triad
Olympics, gymnastics, and mentality


Anonymous said...

Did you hear about Jessica Hardy and the weight loss drug? Because she completely just proved your point.

Tiptoe said...

Yes, I heard about that. She hasn't said much in regards to how she may have gotten it or who may have given it to her if that is the case. It'll be interesting when the other details come out.

Also, last week seven female Russian runners (I think) tested positive for banned substances and won't be at the Games now.

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