Gymnastics and figure skating mired in eating disorder controversy ahead of South Korean Olympics
As the 2018 South Korea Winter Olympics near, many are getting excited to watch and cheer on athletes competing in a number of sports ranging from classics like speed skating to new contests like snowboarding. However, some sports that are seen as hallmarks of the winter games are coming under fire for extreme training methods and encouraging unhealthy eating habits.
Gymnastics and figure skating have been some of the Olympic sports for decades, but several former Olympic athletes say their fight for the gold medal took dangerous tolls on both their body and mind.
Not only were these athletes’ bodies put under intense scrutiny that could have a lasting impact on a young competitor’s minds, some say disordered eating habits were even encouraged by their peers and coaches.
One acclaimed U.S. figure skater, Gracie Gold, has announced she would be sitting out the South Korean Olympics – citing an eating disorder, depression, and anxiety.
In a statement last year, she withdrew herself from the Grand Prix season, saying “I am currently in treatment for depression, anxiety and an eating disorder. I will not have adequate training time to prepare and compete at the level that I want to.”
She would later withdraw from the US national championships while continuing her treatment, thus ending any chance of appearing in the 2018 Olympics.
Sochi gold medalist Yulia Lipnitskaya quit the sport entirely after battling anxiety and anorexia.
“Anorexia is a disease of the 21st century,” Lipnitskaya said on the Russian Skating Federation website. “It is quite common. Unfortunately, not everyone is able to cope with it.”
These stories seem rare at first, as few high-level figure skaters or gymnasts have publicly talked about how the sport has affected their body image or contributed to eating disorders. Even Lipnitskaya and Gold were both relatively vague in their announcements. But, if you dig deeper, it becomes clear these issues are rife in the worlds of gymnastics and figure skating.
In fact, they’re just the latest victims of the extreme pressure of the Olympic games.
Earlier this year, former USA gymnast Vanessa Atler revealed that she struggled with an eating disorder throughout her time training at the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy.
The now 35-year-old appeared to be lock for 2000 Sydney Olympics after becoming the first female gymnast to perform a maneuver called a Rudi vault. However, her eating disorder eventually contributed to injuries that would keep her from reaching the Olympics and prematurely end her career.
In a podcast called GymCastic, Atler detailed how rigorous weigh-ins led her to begin purging to stay thin.
“He would weigh us three times a day, which is insane,” she says. “You’d weigh in the morning, write down your weight and after workouts you’d write down your weight and at night time you’d write down you weight. Which is so stupid because it doesn’t mean anything.”
Atler says she was even told to avoid water.
“I remember they said don’t drink water because it makes you look bloated,” she says. “And after workouts, Valeri’s wife would take me to a regular gym to work out on a treadmill.
The experience has had a lasting effect on Atler.
“I feel like I got really screwed up with my weight at Valeri’s to this day,” she says. “I’m still just messed up like I can’t not weigh [myself] it’s just a mess. I’m really sensitive to that … When I see coaches weigh their kids and things that like it’s just ridiculous.”
As Yulia Lipnitskaya and Gracie Gold show, this “tradition” of hyper-focusing on appearances and striving to maintain an unhealthy or potentially unattainable body shape continue to exert dangerous pressure on the young women who compete in these fields.