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Olympians at Risk of Eating Disorders

written by: Suzanne Florin • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 1/18/2011

What is the link between Olympians and eating disorders? Why are some athletes prone to developing these mental health conditions? This article offers an insight.

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    376px-Gymnast concentration To excel in sports and other physical activities, it is important to be in good shape - both physically and psychologically. A healthy mind and body helps one become competitive and competent enough to take on all sorts of challenges. But some Olympians are more concerned about their physical appearance, particularly if a perfect figure is one of the factors that can affect their performance. As a consequence of their preoccupation with body shape and weight, they adopt unhealthy eating habits and rituals that eventually lead to an eating disorder. Learn more about the link between Olympians and eating disorders as you read this article.

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    Olympians and Eating Disorders

    Engaging in sports offers a number of benefits to a person, such as a fit and healthy body, self-confidence, and competitiveness. But there are some who experience extreme pressure and stress as they become more involved in a particular sport. Physical appearance matters a great deal in some sports; and Olympians experience deep mental and psychological battles as they try to please their coaches, judges, fans and their own high levels of expectation.

    Susan Ringwood, the chief executive of a British charity that helps anorexics and bulimics, has claimed that a number of female athletes who competed in the Beijing Olympics were suffering from eating disorders. She says that it was as a result of the pressure to "not only perform well but also to look good."

    She named some sports that had an increased number of athletes with eating disorders. Among these were gymnastics and high-board diving. The pressure that athletes who participate in diving competitions is rather strong, since they not only wish to look good for the judges but also for those watching them on television.

    The desire of athletes to win a gold medal requires discipline and they learn how to control their body by following strict diets and regularly measuring or weighing themselves. Although done for the purpose of reaping success in their sport, these are also symptoms of eating disorders.

    There are also certain technical standards that indirectly pressure athletes to maintain a low weight that results in an unnatural body shape. In the early 1990s, ski jumping at the Olympic level placed more emphasis on aerodynamics, and this resulted in an increased number of competitors having a very low body weight. The same holds true for figure skating and gymnastics, where perfect footwork is impossible the more a competitor weighs.

    Athletes who have eating disorders go through emotional issues such as shame. Ringwood added that these athletes opt to keep their disorder a secret. They avoid seeking treatment, and they fear that admission of the problem would take a toll on their career.

    Olympians who suffer from an eating disorder are at a higher risk of experiencing serious medical conditions because of their engagement in strenuous activities. Among these health concerns are cardiac arrhythmias and electrolyte imbalance. The pressure that they put on their body and their mind can also develop into depression and even suicide.

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    Conclusion

    Most of the Olympians who develop an eating disorder are women, although it is also a problem for some male athletes. The need to be recognized and performance anxiety are some of the factors that cause Olympic athletes to practice dangerous means of controlling their weight. It is important that coaches provide positive reinforcements, counselling, and support to their athletes in order to ensure their total development and success as a person.

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    Resources

    Athletes and Eating Disorders, From

    http://www.mirror-mirror.org/athlete.htm

    Athletes and Eating Disorders: What Coaches, Parents, and Teammates Need to Know, From

    http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/nedaDir/files/documents/handouts/Athletes.pdf

    Beijing Olympics: Women Athletes are Going Hungry for Success, From

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/othersports/olympics/2486609/Beijing-Olympics-women-athletes-are-going-hungry-for-success.html

    Photo Credit: WikiCommons