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Body Image

A Distorted Picture

There’s nothing like a good bout of exercise to work up a healthy appetite. Or is there? A lot of athletes, it turns out, are simply not eating enough.

An alarming initiative was launched last week by the British Olympic Association, UK Athletics and the Eating Disorders Association. They hope to raise awareness of the growing problem of eating disorders. Coaches, family, friends and athletes are to be targeted with details of the early warning signs and risks of anorexia and bulimia nervosa.

The campaign coincides with news that problems in both male and female athletes are running out of control. Research at the University of Leeds by Angie Hulley, the former English cross-country champion and marathon international, reveals that one in ten of Britain’s female distance runners has “some kind of eating disorder”. They are obsessively convinced that less fat equals more fitness.

It can happen at the highest level. The current European cross-country champion, Sara Wedlund, is a self-confessed anorexic, while Lucy Hassell,the British international runner, became so thin that she was forced to use a wheelchair.

Liz McColgan revealed that in 1988, in the run-up to the Olympics, her weight fell to seven stone. She was out-kicked for gold in Seoul. “I was so weak and undernourished I didn’t have the energy to sprint for the line,” she said.

It is not just running. There are problems in the worlds of ballet, figure-skating, gymnastics, rowing and horse riding. In the United States, wrestlers often binge-eat before a match after starving themselves before the weigh-in. The deaths of three college wrestlers late in 1997 triggered panic and it was revealed that they often exercise in saunas or run or cycle in plastic or rubber clothing to sweat off weight.

Other athletes have been known to use such high-risk techniques as jogging in hot showers while wrapped in plastic bags, swallowing diuretics, laxatives or amphetamines, and self-induced vomiting.

All this will make alarming reading for thousands of parents who will see it as yet another reason why they should not encourage their children to take part in sports already tarnished by drug and financial scandals. Unfortunately just as drugs and eating disorders distort the body, so too, poisoned attitudes to competition and rewards for winning have distorted the very body of sport itself.

Historically it is nonsense. The earliest trainers realised that one of the needs of the sportsman in vigorous training was a plentiful and nutritious food supply. Whenever food has been short it has been seen as a handicap to performance.

In the run-up to the first postwar Olympics in 1948, when food rationing was in force, British hopefuls were offered extra food parcels. And the very earliest manuals on distance running laid great emphasis on the quality and quantity of food – plentiful roast beef, roast and boiled mutton or chicken, vegetables and stale crusty bread, all washed down with ale. The meat was usually taken before the longest work-out of the day. On the move, the athletes topped up with mutton stew, calf’s foot jelly or eel broth, and drank beef tea, coffee, ginger ale, milk, and at times champagne and brandy.

Today’s experts believe that eating disorders are especially common among athletes because of the pressure on them. Competition reinforces characteristics such as perfectionism, obsessive behaviour, the desire to control physique and attention to detail. Most successful athletes are more determined and disciplined than the average. They set the highest goals and work extra hours to achieve them.

The same pressure that will drive one athlete to bulk up by the illegal use of steroids is the engine that drives another to shed weight through anorexia and bulimia. They just see different paths to producing what they believe will be the perfect and winning body.

The body images, thin or thick, come from the top. Every American schoolboy knows that Mark McGwire, the St Louis Cardinals’ baseball super-slugger, bulks his body with the drug androstenedione. The stuff is banned by the International Olympic Committee but Major League Baseball has this week declined again to ban it. Thousands of kids will go on trying to buy a body like McGwire’s at their local drugstore.

They want the body and they hunger for the rewards that follow. For excelling in sport is increasingly seen as a lucrative stepping stone to a glittering quasi-showbiz career where image is all. Such a distorted view pushes everything else aside. A well balanced athlete will enjoy home, career, hobbies, friends and intellectual and cultural pursuits. But if sport is allowed to dominate completely there is dangerous imbalance.

Putting lottery money into pumping children through sporting hothouses of excellence, with the lure of gold dangling ever before them, is all very well, and of course coaches and doctors must be on the lookout to pick up the pieces when young people are physically or psychologically damaged by their sport.

But there will always be too many such victims while the leaders of sport whip up the appetite for fame and fortune above all else, when what they should be putting back on the menu is the joy and fun that sport has long lost.

JOHN BRYANT

Copyright 1999   Times Newspapers Ltd.

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