Eating disorders rear ugly head in athletics

by Mark Heller

Pick a story, any story. The Jean Freeman expose on athletes’ eating disorders is far too expansive for her liking.

Freeman, the Gophers women’s swimming and diving coach, has seen on average about one case per year over her 28-year career, and that doesn’t include the possible two or three cases per year she doesn’t know about.

So here are the Cliffs Notes:

ï Callused fingers from creating a gag reflex.

ï Broken blood vessels on the nose from throwing up.

ï One woman fainted on the starting block after binge-eating an entire pan of brownies.

Eating disorders are more abundant among the general population – male and female – than student-athletes. The problem lies in a need to live up to society’s misguided expectations of men being strong and women being thin in their everyday lives.

But athletes have an additional strike working against them, the misconception that a certain weight – or lack thereof – allows for optimum athletic performance, something research has never supported.

The American Psychiatric Association cites four classes of eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and disorders “not otherwise classified.”

According to a 1998 study by the NCAA, more than 40 percent of its member institutions reported at least one athlete with anorexia or bulimia.

At the Olympic swimming trials, surveys have been administered to athletes to gauge their body weight and fitness level goals.

“About 75 percent of them think they’re overweight,” Freeman said. “When asked why they said the coach, teammates and other people tell them they are. It’s a problem when the best of the best think and are being told they’re overweight.”

Freeman used to show a video made by then-head athletic trainer Leah Wolenberg. Now that the video is several years out-of-date, Freeman brings in a nutritionist each semester to discuss, among other topics, eating disorders.

“I don’t mess around anymore, it shouldn’t be a taboo subject,” Freeman said. “I just sit them down and ask how they’re doing and get them talking about eating and sleeping habits. You ask about regular body functions. Make it a normal and factual conversation.”

The big lie

Gary Wilson didn’t want to do it. What coach would? Lock a kid up in Fairview-Riverside Hospital for 60 days?

But Wilson knew what he was doing – he was potentially saving one of his runners’ lives. And it worked.

“It’s a control issue,” said Wilson, Minnesota’s cross country and track coach for 17 years. “It’s not an eating problem, it’s having control over your own destiny. Everybody thinks it’s a food deal, it’s not a food deal.”

Wilson gives his squad handouts on, and shows them a video on, eating disorders. If you like pictures of a 20-year old anorexic with the body structure of a 65-year old, this video is for you.

As Wilson said, “That gets their attention quick.”

Though Wilson’s approach is one of direct confrontation, he knows it’s not enough. Otherwise he wouldn’t see “between 70-100” eating disorder cases of varying degrees in his 30 years of coaching.

Backed by often-oblivious parents who turn blame toward the messenger, athletes with eating disorders force coaches in Wilson’s position to take a hard-line approach.

“The best thing I can give them is, ‘You’re either going to get help or sit on the bench,'” Wilson said. “‘We’re not having this conversation very long. I love you to death; I care about you as if you were my daughter. You can sit here and cry and lie to me and have your parents lie or deny it – all the dog and pony show you want – but I am not getting emotionally involved in your wackoism.’

“They’ll suck you in and have you believe everything is rosy and wonderful.”

Long-distance running is a perfect example of the misconception that a skinny frame equals athletic endurance.

“Can you be 5-feet, 220 pounds and run cross country? Probably not,” Wilson said. “But a coach is not doing their job as an educator if they’ve got a kid who’s 5-feet, 80 pounds and lets the kid run when they should be 5-feet, 100 pounds. It’s unconscionable that you would put a kid’s life in jeopardy to win a cross-country meet. Life’s way too short for that.”

Troubling trends

Gymnastics is another women’s sport that primarily confronts eating disorders. In addition to the “thinness” perception, subjective judges who score each meet create problems, often commenting on a competitor’s performance and abilities falsely being hindered because of their weight.


ï In a 1988 meet in Budapest, a U.S. judge told Christy Henrich – one of the world’s best – that she was too fat and needed to lose weight if she hoped to make the Olympic team. Christy resorted to anorexia and bulimia. Her weight plummeted to an unfathomable 47 pounds. In July 1994, the 22-year old Henrich died of multiple organ failure.

ï In 1976, the average gymnast was 5-foot-3, 105 pounds. Now, the average Olympian is 4-foot-8, 85 pounds.

“This trend can’t continue, but it’s been engrained in athletes’ psychological well-being,” said Stanford gymnastics coach Kristin Smyth. “I don’t know what we can do other than educate and hope. It reinforces stereotypes that aren’t necessarily accurate on the whole.”

Wrestling with weight

Ninety percent of all eating disorders cases, both in athletes and non-athletes, are women, which means 10 percent are in men.

Among the men’s sports, wrestlers usually don’t involve themselves with anorexia or bulimia, but quite the opposite.

They often use binge eating to gain mass and move up in weight class during the season. There is no fear of obesity, nor does it become an all-consuming preoccupation. During the offseason or after their wrestling careers are over, most find it easy to return to a normal lifestyle.

“Clearly it’s different because it doesn’t take over their lives,” said Dr. David Wong, a doctor for several University men’s and women’s teams. “They’re not looking for control, they’re not being judged aesthetically, it’s the same as boxing.

“Ultimately I don’t know if it enhances performance because they’re stronger when they’re heavier and weaker when they get lighter.”

Digesting the truth

On Oct. 24, the University’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport held a lecture series on eating disorders at the Humphrey Center. Among the guests was JoAnna Deeter, a former track and field standout at Notre Dame and recovering anorexic.

More than once in her speech the healthy looking Deeter claimed to be cured.

Many, however, were less than convinced.

“To say, ‘I’m totally healed,’ or whatever her language was – in your dreams honey,” Freeman said. “These kids struggle with it for life, you can’t change it overnight or in a few years.”

But Wilson, Freeman, Smyth and Wong all agreed education and communication are key to prevention.

Coaching in this day and age means no longer sweeping taboos like eating disorders under the rug. Instead, issues of image must be dealt with as aggressively as they’re marketed.

“I can’t help but think it is media and MTV,” Freeman said. “You see all the navel rings and skinny mini-models and that’s what we’re supposed to look like. People, and a lot of coaches, will look at someone and say, ‘Wow, they look great,’ when they have an eating disorder.

“They think they’ll be a better athlete because of it. It’s the biggest farce. They just don’t get it.”

Mark Heller welcomes comments at [email protected]