History of Olympic Athletes & Eating Disorders
It is known that athletes are at an increased risk of developing an eating disorder more than the general population.
While participating in athletics can be a great way to build self-esteem and promote positive wellbeing, the immense pressure to compete and to win can create an environment conducive to developing an eating disorder.
The risks of developing an eating disorder increase when the pressures of athletic competition are added to an existing cultural emphasis on thinness. [1, 2]
Prevalence of Disordered Eating in Athletes
While research suggests that female athletes are at higher risk of developing disordered eating, both male and female athletes are at risk, especially those that participate in sports that tend to emphasize diet, appearance, size, and weight.
Research indicates that athletes who compete in weight-class sports such as wrestling, rowing, horse racing and aesthetic sports such as figure skating, dancing, bodybuilding, gymnastics, swimming, and diving are among the highest risk of developing disorder eating. 
It is thought that athletes participating in weight-class and aesthetic sports are at higher risk of developing disordered eating because of particular factors related to those sports such as an emphasis on leanness as a competitive advantage, uniforms that promote body dissatisfaction and body preoccupation, and a greater focus on the individual’s performance (for example in gymnastics, running, figure skating, dance, and diving) rather than the performance of an entire team (such as basketball or soccer). [2, 4]
In particular, female athletes are at risk of developing what is known as the Female Athlete Triad. This is a term used to describe the threefold condition of disordered eating, amenorrhea (or loss of menstrual cycle), and osteoporosis that commonly occurs in female athletes.
Each of these conditions is a medical concern. Together they create serious health risks that may be life-threatening. There are many causes of the triad, but the pressure placed on young women to achieve or maintain a low body weight is often cited as an overarching force in development. [3, 4]
History of Olympic Athletes and Eating Disorders
Many Olympians have shared their struggle with disordered eating, including:
- Adam Rippon – Figure Skater
- Dotsie Bausch – Cyclist
- Dara Torres – Swimmer
- Nancy Kerrigan – Figure Skater
- Brittany Viola – Diver
- Whitney Post – Rower
- Akiko Suzuki – Figure Skater
- Cathy Rigby – Gymnast
- Amanda Beard – Swimmer
- Gabrielle Daleman – Figure Skater
- Bahne Rabe – Rower
- Gracie Gold – Figure Skater
- Nadia Comăneci – Gymnast
- Yulia Lipnitskaya – Figure Skater
- Brian Boitano – Figure Skater
With more and more Olympians sharing their experience, the issue of eating disorders among Olympic athletes seems to have become more transparent. In 2001, Bahne Rabe lost his life due to his eating disorder.
In 2017, figure skater Gracie Gold stepped away from competing due to her struggle with an eating disorder. In 2017, figure skater Yulia Lipnitskaya retired at the age of 19 due to her eating disorder.
In the most recent 2018 Winter Olympics, prominent Olympian Adam Rippon shared his struggle with disordered eating and body image stating hopes to reduce stigma and shine a light on the issue.
Olympians who are sharing their struggle with disordered eating are likely reducing the stigma around eating disorders in sports and are likely contributing to an environment where more athletes are able to seek support.
Reducing this stigma can also be helpful in initiating change in the Olympic environment. For example, Norway has developed policies to be sensitive to the perils of weight-related disorders, such as withholding the weights of its athletes on their stats.
Individuals who participate in athletics can experience protective factors that promote well-being, as sports participation can have positive effects on health behaviors, self-efficacy, and self-esteem.
Like eating disorders in general, the etiology of eating disorders in athletes is multifaceted. Similarly, the recommended treatment is multifaceted and is ideally comprised of a multi-disciplinary team made up of mental health providers, medical providers, and dietitians. [2, 4]
Another factor to be considered in eating disorder prevention and treatment in athletes is the role of coaches, trainers, and other athletic staff. These individuals work closely with athletes and are often highly trusted and respected.
With proper training and education, they can help reduce athletes’ risk of developing an eating disorder or be able to help those who may be struggling to get the support that they need. [2, 3, 4]
About the Author:
Chelsea Fielder-Jenks is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Austin, Texas. Chelsea works with individuals, families, and groups primarily from a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) framework. She has extensive experience working with adolescents, families, and adults who struggle with eating, substance use, and various co-occurring mental health disorders. You can learn more about Chelsea and her private practice at ThriveCounselingAustin.com.
1. National Eating Disorder Association. Statistics and Research on Eating Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/statistics-research-eating-disorders on June 4, 2018.
2. Thompson, R. A., & Sherman, R. T. (2010). Eating disorders in sport. New York: Routledge.
3. Bernstein, S.J. (2008). Starving to Win: An Exploration of Eating Disorders in Female Athletes. Columbia University Graduate Student Journal of Psychology, 10, 64-69.
4. National Eating Disorder Association. Eating Disorders and Athletes. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/eating-disorders-athletes on June 4, 2018.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published on June 26, 2018
Reviewed on June 26, 2018 by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com