It began with a startling admission: “Probably 80 per cent of my teammates had eating disorders,” said a female Canadian Olympian, talking about the lead-up to a recent Winter Games.
“It was a high percentage,” she said. “But I’m not sure if they would necessarily consider themselves as having eating disorders, because these behaviours are so normalized.”
The comment was unexpected, because this athlete wasn’t someone prone to exaggeration. Nor did she belong to a sport typically associated with such problems. Cutting weight offered no obvious benefit, no better shot at the podium. If anything, it risked making the athletes perform worse.
But that was her point. Eating disorders weren’t just found in sports known to be susceptible, such as figure skating and gymnastics. They were everywhere, especially amid the pressure of the Olympics.
And even though the problem was rampant on her team, audiences watching at home would have never known it.
Those words, shared in confidence with The Globe and Mail, were a revelation that led to a months-long examination of the scope of eating disorders in elite amateur sport. The interviews began before the Tokyo Summer Games, spanned several countries and continued until the final weeks of preparation for the Beijing Winter Olympics.
After decades of being discussed in whispers, the issue of athlete mental health is being addressed more openly than ever. But when it comes to eating disorders, much of the problem remains obscured by a combination of shame, fear and a lack of data, athletes and researchers say.
While the existence of the problem has always been acknowledged – from occasional binging and purging by athletes right up to the clinical diagnoses of anorexia and bulimia – very few statistics are available to capture how prevalent it is. Athletes sometimes tell their stories in isolation, but the situation in Canada is rarely looked at in aggregate.
The Globe began by compiling available research, including academic studies, details of athletes who had publicly acknowledged their struggles, and conversations with those who had only disclosed it in private. We then reached out to people within the national teams, tapping into contacts made over the course of covering seven Olympics between two reporters. Within weeks, more than 40 case studies of athletes were identified from the past five years alone, including some who had never told their stories.
We then analyzed those cases for patterns, in an effort to better understand the contributing factors and consequences for each person. More than a dozen athletes spoke to The Globe at length, along with coaches and administrators, and more than a dozen experts in Canada who identify and treat these issues.
The disorders can occur even in sophisticated sports programs where athletes have access to multiple health professionals. And there can be a variety of causes: some begin inadvertently, while some are brought on by questionable coaching or suspect advice given to young athletes willing to do whatever it takes to become an Olympian. Others are the product of a sports culture that encourages dangerous habits.
The series begins with Dangerous Games, which examines the prevalence of the problem throughout Canada’s national teams. The second instalment of the investigation looks at the suspect science used in one sport to push aspiring Olympians to starve themselves.
Subsequent articles look at the calls for action from experts and a prominent sports funding organization that resulted from the investigation, and the response from the federal government to the series. Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge pledged to review how abuse is dealt with in amateur sport, and later announced the government would close a key loophole in how complaints of maltreatment are dealt with in Canada.
Several athletes chose to tell their stories to shine a light on toxic practices inside the sports world that allow eating disorders to proliferate. Their goal was to protect future athletes, and to inform parents, coaches and others about the causes, the warning signs and the risks.
Some were reluctant to talk publicly, given the sensitivity of the subject and the impact it could have on their careers, and spoke only on background about what was happening inside their sport. Several were highly motivated, despite knowing they would be revealing personal details about some of the most difficult moments of their lives. Others agreed to tell their story in detail for the first time, describing the struggles that Canadians never saw when watching them compete.
All of them had a reason for speaking out.
“I just want to be the kind of person that I needed when I was 15,” skier India Sherret told the Globe.
“I want the girls and boys that are dealing with it, or struggling with it, [to know] they don’t need to go through what I went through. You don’t have to get super sick. You don’t have to be X amount of sick to get help. They always deserve help.”
Other athletes, such as figure skater Kirsten Moore-Towers, don’t see themselves as victims, but as potential agents of change in a sports culture that can be dangerous and detrimental to athletes.
Cyclist Gillian Carleton questions whether enough is being done: “Coaches and organizations should be the ones advocating for their athletes, and in a lot of cases they’re just standing idly by or they are actively encouraging it.”
As mountain-biker Haley Smith put it: eating disorders “thrive in silence.”