Eating disorders risk for elite athletes

The social and cultural pressures in elite sport are immense and can trump athletes’ own psychological strength, a sports psychologist has said.

Dr Anthony Papathomas from Loughborough University was commenting after news that the triathlete Hollie Avil has walked away from the sport just months before the London Olyympcs because of her battle with an eating disorder and depression.

Hollie, a former World Junior Triathlon champion and World Under 23 Champion, told Sky News "I had some fantastic times, but the bad times outweighed the good. I don't want to carry on the next few years being unhappy and risking my health."

She continued: "You become addicted to not eating and getting thinner, you just keep going and going and nothing gets in your way. As I saw myself losing weight, I just wanted to keep going and kept thinking of other ways I could restrict my diet.”

Dr Papathomas commented: “Hollie's story is very common, particularly in trathlon and other so-called ‘lean sports’ – like distance running, gymnastics, figure-skating – where weight or aesthetics are considered a key factor in success.

“I would argue that these athletes are not vulnerable individuals predisposed to an eating disorder but that their extreme social environment is a major factor. Hollie's mental strength means she has been able to move away from a sport she no doubt loves and that must be a huge part of her identity. Some athletes are not able to move away from their sport and the consequences can be catastrophic.”