Why I didn't watch the Opening Ceremonies

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.

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tia said...

you get my 2 thumbs up for this post! I feel the same.

Kelly said...

Agreed. I can't watch the races anymore, either.

now.is.now said...

I totally get what you're saying...

but I can't help it..

I LOVE the olympics! I look forward to them for so long every 2 years!

Maybe this is like one of those "yeah you shouldn't have fake sugar... but I love diet coke so give me a diet coke things." What I mean is "I totally get what you're saying and you're probably right... but I love the olympics!"

But you have to admit, it's pretty cool to see all the world come together to watch something!

Tiptoe said...

I have to agree with now.is.now. The Olympics still holds a special place in my heart. Perhaps, part of it is because when I was younger, I truly wanted to be in the Olympics, and yes, sadly, I probably would have gone to extremes to get there like some athletes.

Still, I do enjoy watching the Olympics. For many, like us, there will always be a cloud of suspicion over it due to the realizations of the athletes, but I still find it hard to condemn when these athletes have worked extremely hard to get there. Maybe we hold the Olympics to too high a standard, but it really is a dream for so many.

Plus for a number of nations, it's an event that holds no politics, because everyone is on the same playing field. And in this day and age, that says a lot too.

seachange said...

I have to say I completely disagree. Do you think someone has a chance whatsoever of competing their Olympic dreams in the midst of an eating disorder? Compare that person, attempting to train hours and hours a day, for years on end, with an eating disorder to someone who nourishes themselves appropriately for their training. Who is going to be more successful? Even in terms of concentration, completely aside from physical activity, the person with the eating disorder is at a severe disadvantage. Some of these athletes have been training for the Olympics in some form or another for twenty years. While I don't argue with a potential for problems in some more "weight-based" sports such as ski jumping, to avoid the Olympics altogether seems a tad extensive. I would say the vast majority of sports are not weight-based or weight-conflated; they are fitness based, and there is a difference. I know several people competing in Alpine Ski Racing in Vancouver and trust me, there is no need to feel sad for them. They're not in the Olympics because they are afraid of failure and don't have anything else in their lives but physical activity. They are in the Olympics simply because they love the sport. Furthermore to the world it might seem like yeah, the Olympics come around once in four years and that is the only thing these athletes train for. The Olympics are not the ultimate culmination of four years. Their lives go on otherwise and they get the benefits of the sport that come from traveling on world cup circuits, mentoring young kids, competing in NHL games, making big $$ off of sponsorships, spending time with their families, friends, loved ones, etc. Most people that compete at such a high-level maintain their commitment to their sport after they stop competing, through coaching, television commentating, etc. The people I know competing in Vancouver are some of the most inspiring, optimistic, and dedicated people I know, and certainly have inspired me in my ED recovery. Not because I want to be at their fitness level but because of their passion and dedication to something they truly care about.

Personally I think in the midst of our diet-crazed culture the Olympics are an prime opportunity for us to take note of beautiful human bodies which actually don't so often fit into the typified social ideal. Girls like Lindsey Vonn, Cindy Klassen. They certainly aren't a size zero but they are fit and look amazing. Not that I'm saying appreciating the strength of a speed skater's thighs is a cure for EDs, but it's not a bad thing in and of itself.

I personally will be enjoying watching the Olympics as a time to chill out, cheer on my friends, my country, and enjoy an event that is not about weight or politics. Don't waste your time feeling sad for people that don't feel sad for themselves. I highly doubt the percentage of people in the Olympics with mental health issues is higher than the regular population.

I know this comment was long and probably an overreaction, but I feel as though I should say something, knowing several people competing quite personally and feeling as though they are incredibly inspirational and some of the most positive, giving, and quite surprisingly, peaceful people I know. I feel as though it's quite possible I approach my everyday life with more anxiety than my friends have before they hurl themselves down a mountain at 120 km/h.

Cathy (UK) said...

EDs are also more common in distance runners than non-athletes. Much of the data for my published research (on the Female Athlete Triad) and my PhD has been derived from distance runners.

These runners don't aspire to have 'perfect bodies' or feel pressured by cultural issues [as mentioned by 'seachange' (above)]. Rather, they have a similar personality to people with EDs in that they are obsessive, perfectionistic and determined. These are not negative characteristics, but they can lead to some runners becoming very ritualistic and obsessive about their training - and to over-training etc.

Besides, EDs are not about 'dying to be thin'; they're about getting stuck in patterns of obsessive and ritualistic behaviours around eating, exercise etc.

Low bone density is a problem for high level male and female distance runners, just as it is for people with anorexia nervosa. That is not to say that all of these high level runners are anorexic; they're not. However, they may regularly fail to balance their high energy expenditure with an adequate energy intake; often inadvertently. They then develop an endocrine and bone metabolic profile that is comparable to some people with anorexia nervosa.

marisa said...

that's a really good post.. sadly i can relate to this. i'm a competitive climber (mainly participating in bouldering competitions) and i started wanting to lose weight to compete better as my sport is very dependent on strength-to-weight ratio. less weight means you can pull harder and faster and basically it just means you're much stronger.

so i started eating healthier, then gradually it became obsessive calorie counting, restricting myself to smaller and smaller portions, you get the picture. it got to a point where my bmi was 17.5 and i developed the female athlete triad. then my ED swung to the other extreme and i wound up eating a lot and obviously gaining the weight back.

sadly i was really stronger when i was dangerously underweight and more often than not i wish so badly that i was still at that weight just because i want to excel at my sport.

Beth Morey said...

I agree with some of what you wrote about. We didn't watch the ceremonies, either.

H. said...

I agree, I often feel that way when watching the Olympics. I wonder how many have serious issues, such as a deathly fear of failing (and failing is a silver medal), or who is starving themselves, or who has parents who pushed them here and who they feel won't love them if the do less than perfect, ect.
I love the summer olympics more, as a cross country/ track runner. I will always watch the sport (but not really gymnastics, figure skating ect). But I do get what you're saying. However this year a friend is competing in the 3000m speed skating event (Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr!!!) So I'll be watching her!

A:) said...

But what about those who do not have EDs? I agree that EDs may be a problem for high performance atheletes, but it is wrong and perhaps a bit oversensitive to blanket the ENTIRE Olympic organization as promoting EDs in the name of sports or even associating the games with EDs.

I believe it is possible to be a high performance athelete without an ED and it is not fair to boycott the Olympics on the basis that some people may have EDs. That would be like boycotting watching movies because SOME actresses/actors may have EDs or unhealthy pressures on their bodies.

I am not trying to be impolite -- just frank. I think sometimes when we have suffered we risk being oversensitive to issues like this and our black and white thinking tends to give us extremist views on anything that COULD be associated with EDs.


Carolyn said...

hm. i think you are a bit...harsh. of course eating disorders are serious issues in atheletes. gymnastics, skiing, rowing, climbing, diving....
and it is truly upsetting to see eating disordered "athletes" (i remember one diver at the beijing olympics saying she "didn't like food"). but that's not true of all athletes. michael phelps, for example. all the US female gymnasts. pretty much any athlete that actually wins.

i think this is something that you are seeing through an eating-disordered bias. like, whenever i see someone eat a small meal, i automatically think "oh no she has an eating disorder." similarly, it's easy to look at someone who exercises a lot and think "they must have an eating disorder, they wouldn't do that to themselves otherwise." but frankly, it's not true. before my eating disorder, i loved to exercise-- i didn't know or care about calories. sure, it could be strenuous, but it was a beautiful feeling and i loved moving my body. i don't always see it that way now (although more and more), but it's proof that some people can like exercise for something other than the exercise.

why do you write? why do you study science? or make jewelry? why do any of us have passions? it's not because we need to impress people, or because we fear failure, we have passions because they bring joy to us. try thinking about the olympics as a chance for us to share that joy. i'm not trying to be rude, but the olympics is not about eating disorders. eating disorders sometimes make their way into the olympics, but they do not MAKE the olympics.

Anonymous said...

Carrie, if you haven't read it, I suggest reading "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes" by Joan Ryan. It was last revised in 2000, but is still a very eye-opening book. Needless to say I haven't wanted to watch the Olympics much after reading this. Obviously the Olympics are part of a larger cultural issue and not the cause of it, but like you I can still choose not to support it (similarly to how I choose not to watch bad sitcoms or buy Julian Michaels merchandise).

Anonymous said...

thanks for posting your thoughts here. i have mixed feelings about these sports too, but i do hold to a notion that anything/everything can be used or performed or done in a negative manner. just because a sport may be a said "trigger" for someone for negative issues doesn't mean it isn't a positive thing for another person.

but the point is, to each their own. and your own is not into the olympics and that is fine. i guess im more "with you" about it. but again, that comes from my own experiences and the taste that has been left in my mouth regarding what you have written about.

i appreciate your honesty.

Anonymous said...

I also have a hard time watching the Olympics these days. One reason is that the amount of money spent on the Olympics could, in my opinion, be redirected to better uses. For example, the luge track in Vancouver reportedly cost $105 million to build. That's almost TEN TIMES the annual budget of the U.S. National Institutes of Health for research into better treatments for anorexia nervosa. What has happened to our society when it it thought that sliding down an icy track is worth more money than scientific research into a deadly disease?

Carrie Arnold said...

I'm not suggesting boycotting the Olympics because some of the athletes have eating disorders. I was just saying that I can't get excited about them anymore when I know how some of the competitors have likely tortured their bodies and their health to get there. It makes me sad that this is acceptable to the international athletic community. There has started to be guidelines and a movement towards a focus on the athlete's "health," and yet I get the feeling that the sport culture as a whole hasn't changed.

I'm not against people watching the Olympics. My parents do and I don't particularly care. It's great if you can see the enjoyment of the competitors and have fun while watching. For me, I just can't get over the knowledge of how many high level athletes have disordered eating and eating disorders, and that it's largely overlooked in the name of sports and competition.

Tiptoe said...

Just wanted to say as a footnote here that in the men's ski-jumping event today, the commentators did mention about the new BMI requirements for the athletes since they had been getting underweight and were starving themselves.

Glad that it was mentioned and not completely slid under the rug.

Anonymous said...

you are such an idiot. people who care about exercise and competition are admirable; they are not torturing their bodies - they are working towards the pinnacle of human fitness. losing body fat probably does help them with their sport, and i'll bet they're much healthier than you.

Anonymous said...

Just because they starve themselves, doesn't mean they have eating disorders. Wrestlers do this a lot. Then after the season is over, they go back to eating. Is this wrong? Yes it is. Does it effect their bodies? Yes it does. But it's not an eating disorder.

I cannot stress enough. EATING DISORDERS are MENTAL ILLNESSES. They are not about physical anything. They are not eating disorders. It's downplaying how much people with real eating disorders suffer in their heads. I am long recovered from an eating disorder and advocate for those still suffering. Those who are in the middle of it, don't realize how mental it really is. Some of them may never get the chance to see how mental it is. They don't realize what they're hiding under all that food and weight.

Those skiers are hiding nothing but sports. After the Olympics they go back to eating just fine. It's no big deal. We have been beaten and abused. We have depression. We have bipolar disorder. We have personality disorders. We have parents who ignored us. Bullying issues.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, by missing the opening ceremonies, however, you missed one of the most diverse collections of people I have ever seen on TV. Women and men who performed and were involved who all looked happy and healthy were in all shapes and sizes and it was a great thing to see.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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