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Study: Eating disorders within British sport

Weight loss culture among British athletes is causing damage as they battle with eating disorders which pose major health risks, but why are professional athletes more likely to develop an eating disorder?

The largest study to investigate eating disorders amongst elite athletes suggests that athletes are more susceptible to develop an eating disorder compared to the rest of the population. Which may not come as surprise due to the fine margin between winning and losing. Something of which Rebecca Quinlan believed hindered her performance as she had the goal of becoming a professional runner.

While Rebecca was a teenager, she believed that by restricting her food intake it would have a positive impact on her performance when she competed in running competitions. Yet, she began to notice the effects when she started studying at university.

"I think there is a general culture, particularly in track and field athletics you know… weight loss is good, weight loss will enhance your performance.

"As part of my course I had swimming lessons every week, so I had lost a lot of weight and it would have been visible to the swimming teacher seeing me in a swimming costume every single week, that I'd gone from virtually a normal weight to severely underweight but nothing was ever said." She said.

Rebecca continues by saying, "The doctor sat me down and she was like, 'Rebecca, you are dying… You will die if you don't get help immediately.' She said that my kidneys, liver and my heart were failing.

"I have osteoporosis now, which is incurable, I still don't have a period even though I've regained the weight.

"It started out so innocently just trying to lose weight for me to achieve my dream of becoming a professional athlete… I feel sad now to think that my dream got taken over by the eating disorder."

Former cycling and rowing Paralympian, Rachel Morris was diagnosed with anorexia when she was aged 18 which developed into bulimia. The 2008 and 2016 Paralympic gold medalist has said she has always been honest about her difficulties with food and mentioned that she became anxious during her preparation for the Rio games. While training with the GB Paralympic rowing team, she approached a coach for help who responded by calling her a “a nutter”.

"The biggest thing I took out of it was that I was the weakest link of the team - if I cracked, I was going to be the one that let the whole team down."

Yet, British Rowing deny the accusation.

"You've got athletes that don't make their weight and so are in a room the morning they're going to get weighed, a hotel room where you've got indoor rowing machines inside with the heaters on and black bin liners over you - and that that's acceptable to sweat off that weight, to drop off that last half kilogram, whatever it is, to be able to make the weight for your race. To me, that's just an eating disorder factory." Said Morris.

Dame Katherine Grainger, chair of UK Sport, has said that issues will be addressed if athletes speak out about their struggles.

"If there's an environment where it's feeling uncomfortable and people are being pushed into situations, they're not comfortable to be in, they can speak out and there are places to go that they can talk about it and it will be addressed," Said Grainger.

When asked about if sport organisations fail to comply with protocols and procedures in addressing the welfare of athletes, “working in partnership” is the best approach according to the UK Sport chair. Adding, "If in a worst-case scenario, if a sport wasn't to meet the right standards that are involved in the funding agreements that we have with them all, the ultimate thing that UK Sport could do is withdraw funding from a sport. It's very rarely used."

However, Dame Katherine did admit more work needs to be done to support athletes who struggle to open up and speak out about their issues surrounding food and weight.

British Rowing have commented saying they take the health and welfare of their athletes very seriously and believe none of their current athletes have made them aware that they are struggling with an eating disorder. They also cannot categorically deny the use of bin liners as an athlete may have chosen to use one without informing coaches or staff.

Rebecca has spoken openly about her eating disorder with Olympic hurdler Colin Jackson in a BBC Panorama documentary. The two share their experiences with food and explore the question why professional athletes are more likely to develop an eating disorder compared to the rest of the population.

Author: James Parker