Faster, Higher, Stronger… Thinner?

The beach volleyball event at this summer’s London Olympics will attract unsurpassed media attention and play to a capacity stadium. Tickets for the competition - despite only athletics coming with a steeper price tag - were vastly oversubscribed.

Given that just 2000 players regularly participate in the sport – compared to archery (45k) or table tennis (2.5m) – it is probably not just ‘the love of the game’ that will see the crowds flocking.

Cynics might conclude that the appeal lies in the scantily clad attire of its female contestants – and according to Thompson and Sherman,, who claim that sport, like wider society, exhibits and exploits the female body, the cynics are right. After all, the bodies of male beach volleyball players, who wear regular shorts and a baggy vest, manage to remain well concealed in comparison.

Although the most extreme example, beach volleyball is by no means the only sport with unwarranted male-female discrepancies in kit. Observe the differences in the athletics, the gymnastics and triathlon come July and August.

For sport psychologists this is not trivial political correctness, but a possible precursor to more sinister consequences. A focus on appearance and looking good can lead athletes to develop an unhealthy preoccupation with food and weight, dangerous disordered eating behaviours and even clinical eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.

Other mechanisms are at play too. Some sports, such as long-distance running, place an overemphasis on low weight for better performance. Other important factors, such as power and strength, fall by the wayside as athletes adopt a ‘thin to win’ ethos. There are also sports such as figure skating and gymnastics – considered ‘aesthetic’ in nature – that carry an accepted, though unwritten, rule that the way one looks is as relevant as the skills executed.

There are clearly abundant pressures to be thin in the sporting environment and it is no surprise that researchers have regularly found that athletes, particularly female ones, are twice as likely to get an eating disorder as the rest of us.

The sports psychologists Papathomas and Lavallee have shown that elite athletes living with an eating disorder suffer many troubling life experiences beyond the obvious symptoms of the illness. In one study, in-depth interviews were conducted with athletes who had either self-starved or engaged in regular binge-purge cycles.

A key issue was the tension between wanting to disclose the illness and a fear of what the consequences of disclosure might be. Athletes perceived great stigma in mental health issues as it contradicted the image of a mentally tough competitive sportsperson.

The identity conflict between a mentally unwell self and the athletic self can be a source of great emotional turmoil. How can I be a world-class performer if I am mentally weak?

So athletes may go on suffering alone, their burdensome secret destroying personal relationships. Help is not sought until mental and physical breaking point. Even then, eating struggles can continue long after sporting competition has ceased.

Papathomas and Lavallee consider eating disorders in sport to be more than weight worries and dangerous eating behaviours, as problematic as these things are. Eating disorders are also about shame, identity loss, and relationship struggles. They can be as emotionally scarring as they are physically and mentally.

We know that Olympians make great personal sacrifices to achieve their sporting heroics. We know that the smiles on the podium befall grimaces on the track. Athletes who live with an eating disorder however experience a different kind of suffering; one that is destructive, enduring and can even be fatal.

As you look on at the medal winners of 2012, consider what it might have taken for some to get there. There is no doubt that the London Olympics will involve athletes struggling with disordered eating – we just won’t know which ones. Worryingly, nobody will.

The latest sports psychology news and features, during the Olympics and Paralympics, can be found on our Going for Gold website.

Once there you can take part in our online experiment, which gives you the chance to walk the path of a judoko preparing for a judo bout