Too thin to win

People who advise athletes to lose weight have good intentions, but they should be more careful before they dish out potentially dangerous advice

Posted on May 25, 2012 by
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Jessica Ennis (Mark Shearman)

Apart from needing a new pair of glasses, whoever described Jessica Ennis as ‘fat’ is treading a very dangerous and fine line. On one hand, it’s true you have to be thin to win in most events. On the other, planting a seed in an athlete’s mind that they might be overweight can ultimately lead to an eating disorder.

A bit like the ‘no pain, no gain’ catchphrase, the words ‘thin to win’ have become frowned upon in recent years. It is a delicate area, with coaches often secretly annoyed to see their athletes put on weight, but unable to voice their frustration due to the gagging order that’s been unofficially put in place to protect the health of vulnerable youngsters.

Just how delicate a topic is this? Well as an example, Athletics Weekly occasionally receives complaints that we have used photographs of athletes who are considered too thin. “It sends out the wrong message,” we’re told.

The debate has blown up this week with the spotlight on Ennis and also Hollie Avil, the triathlete who has quit her sport after coming under pressure to lose weight. Yet this is not a new issue.

The first major event I watched while working for AW was the 1995 World Cross Country Championships in Durham. That day, the British junior women’s team put up a fine performance and finished sixth. But the future prospects of roughly half the team were hit with eating disorders and injuries such as multiple stress fractures that were, possibly, the result of a poor diet.

The athlete who suffered more than most was Alison Outram. She finished a solid 58th that day on the rolling course in Durham, but was subsequently hospitalized and even came close to death as her weight plummeted to life-threateningly low levels.

Her story made national headlines and her plight was featured extensively in AW. “It is so common in the sport, yet no coach or team manager ever expressed concern,” said Outram. “I was never told that I was too thin, and was never withdrawn from a race because of my weight. Outside of sport, people would think I ate too little and exercised too much, but within athletics my behaviour was not only accepted but endorsed and encouraged. There were lots of others like me so it was easy to hide.”

Thankfully, though, something was done. In 1996 the British Athletic Federation (the predecessor of UK Athletics) formed an advisory group of medical experts to look into the problem after athletes like Outram spoke publicly about their battle with anorexia. Since then, members of the UKA advisory panel have worked closely with the eating disorders charity, Beat, to provide support for athletes who are suffering.

At the time, it was estimated that about one in five female distance runners had suffered an eating disorder. In research led by the runner Angie Hulley at Leeds University, it was found that from 184 elite female distance runners a total of 35 (19 per cent) had an eating disorder or had suffered from one in the past.

The issue has not been forgotten either. During recent years athletes ranging from top American Kara Goucher to former world champion Liz McColgan through to promising juniors like Kathryn and Bryony Frost have spoken about their problems.

McColgan says that while she never suffered a full-blown eating disorder, she “touched the base of anorexia” in 1988 after a coach told her she needed to lose a few pounds to run faster. “I cut down on what I ate and went into the Seoul Olympics way too light and undernourished,” she said. “My performance suffered because I didn’t have the energy to sprint for the line. I should have won gold in the 10,000m, but I got the silver medal instead.”

Then, in Athletics Weekly’s March 1 issue this year, the health and fitness writer Peta Bee, herself a keen runner, wrote about the UK’s first clinic dedicated to treating sports people with the eating disorders anorexia and bulimia nervosa opening at Loughborough University.

On this new National Centre for Eating Disorders in Sport, McColgan said: “It’s an issue that has really needed addressing for a long time. So many athletes – and I’m talking men and women – think they need to be a certain weight and look a certain way to get to the top. They lose perspective.”

So, yes, you have to be thin to win. But you can also be too thin to win.

Like any tough training schedule there is often a very fine line that separates what is healthy and what is unhealthy.

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