The Opening Ceremonies for the 2010 Winter Olympics were held tonight, and to be honest, I didn't watch. In fact, I had no real desire to watch. I used to love the Olympics, love the festivities and the hoopla and yes, the competition. Watching the figure skating competitions in 1988 inspired me to take lessons myself (a rather short-lived experience given my proclivity to falling). But over the past few years, the joy of watching the Olympics has kind of gone away for me. No longer do I just see the close calls, the amazing costumes, the gathering of people from all over the world. Now I see how much people have tortured themselves to be there, that athleticism is only a mask for an eating disorder.
An article in yesterday's New York Times, titled "For Ski Jumpers, a Sliding Scale of Weight, Distance, and Health," only cemented my decision.
Once the V-technique came into vogue in the 1980s, replacing the classic style of holding the skis parallel, jumping became more dependent on flight dynamics like lift and drag than on the propulsion force of the athletes, experts said.
Body weight became a critical factor. The lighter a jumper was, the farther he could jump. Depending on the size of the hill used in competition, jumpers said, a weight loss of a kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, could result in added distance of two to four meters, or 6 ½ to 13 feet.
As an unintended consequence, ski jumping — which permits only men to compete in the Olympics — became troubled by athletes with extremely low body weight and eating disorders more commonly attributed to female gymnasts and figure skaters.
Beginning in the 1990s, many jumpers risked health for aerodynamic advantage. One study found that 22 percent of the ski jumpers at the 2002 Salt Lake Games were below the minimum height-weight proportion, or body mass index, recommended by the World Health Organization.
There have been several highly publicized cases of anorexia and bulimia among jumpers and apparently even a self-referential song. Samppa Lajunen, who won the 2002 Olympic Nordic combined event, which involves ski jumping and cross-country skiing, belonged to a band whose hit, “The Lightest Man in Finland,” mentioned rumors of eating disorders, according to David Wallechinsky’s “The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics.”
“Women’s gymnastics, you hear a lot that maybe they have problems,” said Alan Johnson, the executive director for Project X, the developmental United States ski jumping team. “I look at all of them and those girls are way fatter than ski jumpers.”
True, that last comment wasn't exactly tactful, but the comparison did make me stop a bit. Not that being thinner than a gymnast is a requirement for having an eating disorder, but still.
Nonetheless, I think the article raises a really important point: it's not just figure skaters and gymnasts (ie, young women whose bodies are judged) who are at high risk of developing an eating disorder. And often, athletes who develop eating disorders often say that they initially wanted to lose a little weight so they could compete better. It's a take-one-for-the-team attitude that can become so self-destructive.
I don't blame athletics and sports for causing eating disorders. Yet often the people who excel at sports, people who can push themselves to practice for hours and days and years at a time, are the ones most temperamentally at risk for developing an eating disorder. I would guess that many elite athletes are perfectionists, and to some extent that perfectionism has served them well. They are at the top of their sport. But this same perfectionism can also embody a tremendous fear of failure- it's often what motivates me. And if someone told me that losing weight would have given me better grades, you better believe I would have starved with the best of 'em.
Competitive anything can be a breeding ground for eating disorders, and sports where weight is judged or otherwise conflated with winning simply adds to the pressure. Most people competing at the Olympics probably don't have a clinical eating disorder, but many probably have disordered eating.
I'm not anti-sports, but the almost overwhelming pressure to win and perform makes me too sad to watch such an event. I would love to celebrate all of the hard work that people have put in, the amazing feats of the human body, the beauty of both raw athletic power and artistic grace. What these athletes have done is amazing, full-stop. But when I think of the cost it must of extracted from some of them, I can't help but feel sad. I know what that's like, that compulsion to compete and perform even though you're no longer certain you even like what you're doing, let alone love it. But without that activity, what else would you have? I was always too scared to find out.
And that's why I won't be watching the Olympics.