Olympians and Eating Disorders

Ron Thompson, PhD, Co-Director of The Victory Program at McCallum Place

As the XXII Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia approach, people in nations around the world are excited about watching the performances of some of the world’s greatest athletes. Most of us assume that these world class athletes are “healthy,” based on the fact that they have accomplished enough in their sport to be competing at Olympic level.

Interestingly, athletes are often presumed to be “healthy” if their sport performance is good. The fact that sport is a microcosm of the larger society means that some of the athletes may not be as “healthy” as we assume or would like to believe. Just as eating disorders occur in virtually all parts of society, they also occur in sport. Unbeknownst to an individual who makes a decision to lose weight, that decision can lead to a process that culminates in the development of an eating disorder. The same process can occur in athletes but is often more difficult to identify, especially if the athlete is performing well. However, sometimes athletes with eating disorders can perform well, even for extended periods, before the disorder inevitably begins to affect health and performance.

For the past 20-25 years in the sport world, coaches and athletes worked from the premise  that losing weight or body fat can enhance sport performance, and it is true for some athletes in some sports some of the time. But regardless of the reason for seeking a change in weight or body composition, the process can lead to an eating disorder. Eating disorders occur in all sports, but are they more prevalent in sport than outside sport? Although the data are somewhat equivocal, it appears that athletes have more eating problems than their non-athlete counterparts.

In fact, many former Olympians have publicly acknowledged their eating disorders including Cathy Rigby (gymnastics), Christy Heinrich (gymnast who died from anorexia), Bahne Rabe (male rower for Germany) and Dotsie Bausch, US Silver Medalist at the 2008 Olympics (cycling).

Research is more compelling in detailing the vulnerabilities of those in lean sports to having an eating disorder. Lean sports are sports in which a lean body and/or low weight is believed to confer an advantage, either from a biomechanical point of view or from an appearance point of view in “judged” sports. Athletes at the Olympic level of competition realize that a fraction of a second in non-judged sports or a fraction of a point in judged sports can be the difference between medaling or not in competitions such as the Olympics. In some cases, some athletes are willing to do whatever is necessary to gain that “edge” in performance, including engaging in pathogenic weight loss methods found in eating disorders.

Many athletes have to make sacrifices to be an Olympian. These sacrifices may include less time with family and friends due to training demands; the sacrifice may involve wear and tear on the body from risky or excessive training. As we watch the competitions in Sochi, and especially those events that, in recent years, have been viewed by researchers and clinicians as being higher risk for the development of eating disorders (i.e., ski  jumping for males and figure skating for women), think about the sacrifices many of these athletes have made to be in Sochi.  Hopefully, despite those sacrifices, they are as “healthy” as many people inside and outside of sport assume that they are.

The Victory Program at McCallum Place is the first treatment program designed specifically for competitive athletes. We are passionate about sports and passionate about healing. To learn more about specialized treatment for athletes visit

About the Author

Ron Thompson, PhD, FAED is a Co-Director and Developer of The Victory Program at McCallum Place. He is a psychologist who provides clinical and consulting services to the Athletic Department at Indiana University-Bloomington. Additionally, he has served as a consultant to the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee on mental health and eating disorders. His writings include: A Guide for Family and Friends, Helping Athletes with Eating Disorders, The Exercise Balance, and Eating Disorders in Sport.