Kim Bui was 15 years old when she threw up after eating for the first time. “It had to come out, I just wasn’t allowed to gain weight,” she says. The vicious circle began – from this point on, the young gymnast at the time vomited every day. And several times.
Bui, now 34 years old, later became a world-class gymnast, competed in the Olympics, won European gold twice and retired last year. Together with the former biathlon world champion Miriam Neureuther, she now draws attention to the problem of eating disorders in competitive sports in the Bavarian Radio documentary “Hungern für Gold”, which was broadcast on March 5th. Eating disorders in top-class sport – a taboo subject.
Bui says that a trainer pushed her into the eating disorder. Years later it was another trainer who helped her and thanks to whom she made her way into therapy. In February of this year she went public for the first time. “It took about six or seven years for my whole bulimia disease until I was completely over it and could say that it was over,” the 34-year-old told SWR Sport. It was only when she was healthy that she was able to deal with it openly in her environment. It hadn’t been possible before: “I was plagued by too much shame, disgust and feelings of guilt.”
Neureuther has also had his own experiences with the topic, although not as extreme as Bui and other athletes. “Sport was my life. I did everything for him, including losing weight,” she says. On Instagram, she makes it clear that she did not have an eating disorder. She writes: “There was pressure that I had to lose weight in order to be able to run even faster, even though I was doing very well back then. As a result, my weight was very close to my personal weight limit for a short time.” Luckily, she had a very good family environment and a great home trainer at the time, which she absorbed.
The documentary is not only about the two, but about the topic of eating disorders as a general problem. And Neureuther wants to raise awareness of this. “The pressure to perform, even among young athletes, is enormous. And unfortunately that often leads to such scenarios,” she writes. “In my opinion, it shouldn’t get that far in the future.”
The fact is: competitive athletes have an increased risk of developing an eating disorder. “This is a relevant problem,” confirms sports physician Wilhelm Bloch of the German Press Agency. Between ten and twenty percent of all athletes are affected. Sports in which weight and aesthetics play a role, such as rhythmic gymnastics, ski jumping or endurance sports such as long-distance running, are particularly susceptible.
The clinical picture behind it is called “anorexia athletica”. “Anorexia athletica is defined by my not taking in enough energy, my body losing mass and reaching a critical level in terms of my mass in order to perform better,” explained Bloch, a scientist at the German Sport University in Cologne. In athletics in particular, he observes a trend towards ever thinner athletes.
Disturbed eating behavior can have long-term consequences for top athletic performance and success. Missing menstrual periods, stress fractures or depression are just some of the possible effects. In order to draw attention to the risks, more and more athletes are breaking their silence. Like Kim Bui.
Formula 1 driver Valtteri Bottas, French tennis player Caroline Garcia and Swiss biathlete Lena Häcki-Groß also recently made it public that they were affected by eating disorders. “I trained myself physically and mentally ill,” Bottas confessed on Finnish television. At that time he mainly ate broccoli. “It got out of hand and became an addiction.”
Another prominent example: figure skater Julia Lipnitskaya, star of the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi/Russia. In her home country she won gold in the team competition when she was just 15 years old. Three years later she was at the end of her strength and announced through her mother Daniela that she would end her career because she was suffering from anorexia.
The topic of eating disorders in competitive sports came into the public eye in particular around 20 years ago, when photos of the emaciated ski jumper Sven Hannawald caused a stir. Today he says: “It just had to be, because in my point the issue of weight was the recipe for success.” Hannawald wasn’t the only one.
Poland’s ski jumping hero Adam Malysz once said in the WELT talk when his career was over for some time: “Now I finally look normal, not like a skeleton.” At that time he could hardly wear normal clothes and had to have them changed.
In order to counteract the anorexia in ski jumping, the world ski association has decided on various rules in recent years, making the sport more athletic. It started in 2004 with the introduction of the BMI rule, where BMI stands for body mass index. A BMI that is too low leads to a reduction in ski length. The old cliché “light flies far” still plays a role, albeit in a different way than it used to. It’s also a matter of weighing things up: Would it be better to be lighter or longer skis, which is better? Weight simply plays a role in ski jumping.
In this context, the silver coup by Norwegian ski jumper Maren Lundby last week at the World Championships in Planica received particular attention. In a TV interview in autumn 2021, she announced: “I currently have a few kilos too much to jump at the top of the world.” She therefore suspended the entire Olympic winter and thus voluntarily gave up the opportunity how to become Olympic champion in 2018.
Not because she was ill, but because she didn’t want to risk her health for sport. “Extreme demands are made in ski jumping, weight is one of them. I’ve never been irresponsible in controlling my weight, and that’s part of my recipe for success,” Lundby said at the time. And received a lot of encouragement and encouragement, but also criticism. A murmur went through the Norwegian media, who were used to success, and the cross-country skier Emil Iversen initially called the decision “unprofessional” and later apologized for it.
Almost 17 months later it should be clear that the 28-year-old Lundby made the right decision in terms of sport. With silver at the World Championships in Planica, Slovenia, she made an impressive return to the top of the world. “I don’t think the last two years have been easy for her. She has always struggled, even with her weight. Of course, that’s part of our sport,” said Katharina Althaus.
The German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) is aware of the problem. He wants to raise awareness of the topic through conferences for doctors, trainers and other sports managers and reduce the number of cases through mandatory annual health checks for senior athletes.
“Even the best systems and our work will never be able to prevent eating disorders 100 percent,” said Birte Steven-Vitense, head of health management at the DOSB.