Advocates for Children Paper

Erica Johnson

Advocates for Children
College Park Scholars
University of Maryland at College Park

Eating Disorders and Child Gymnasts

Hidden behind the limelight often associated with womenís gymnastics there is a villain. This villain has destroyed the lives of many children aspiring to be gymnasts and in recent years has gained an increased amount of notoriety. It can be found deep within the hearts and souls of aspiring Olympic champions. The villain comes in two forms: anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. The issue is not whether or not eating disorders exist in the world of gymnastics, but what causes gymnasts to develop them and what is being done to help those gymnasts that are plagued with eating disorders. After learning the tragic accounts from many gymnasts describing how their coaches emotionally abuse them, it has become evident to me that coaches cause eating disorders including anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa in young female gymnasts. Coaches need to reform their coaching styles to prevent any more young gymnasts from falling pray to eating disorders. Unfortunately this is an issue that continues to affect an increasing amount of aspiring child gymnasts.

Anorexia is defined as "self starvation driven by a distorted perception of oneís appearance" ("Dying to Win"). It is most often found in young girls who have suffered abuse of some sort. The long term effects of anorexia include osteoporosis, the delayed onset of puberty, a weakened heart, and the inability for many of the bodyís vital organs to operate properly. If a person were to remain anorexic for a extended period of time without seeking help, the lack of nutrients could result in death or severe irreversible injuries. Bulimia is defined as "recurring binge eating combined with a morbid fear of becoming fat, sometimes followed by self-induced vomiting or purging" (Nutrition Concepts and controversies 390). The long term effects of bulimia include rotted teeth, swollen and lacerated throats, and electrolyte imbalances resulting in disrupted heart rates and without proper treatment, death. Both anorexia and bulimia are two eating disorders that used to effect mostly young women, however in the past decade dangerous eating disorders have been effecting more and more children, especially in the world of gymnastics.

In this day and age, "[w]omanís gymnastics, more than any other sport...demands that its best athletes be not only small but unnaturally small" (Little Girls in Pretty Boxes). Unfortunately, the size of the average gymnast has decreased significantly over the past four decades. In 1968 the Olympic gold medalist Vera Caslavska was five feet three inches and weighed 121 pounds. After Vera Caslavska "Olga Korbut--seventeen years old, four feet eleven inches, eighty-five pounds--enchanted the world with her pigtails and her rubber band body" (Little Girls in Pretty Boxes). After Olgaís gold medal performance coaches including Bela Karolyi began to "scour the kindergarten classes of Romania in search of small, flexible girls he could mold into Olympic champions" (Little Girls in Pretty Boxes). After Olga the average size of gymnasts continued to decrease as coaches began to hunt for smaller girls to turn into their protogies. Four years later Nadia Comaneci competed at a height of five feet and weight of eighty-five pounds. "The decline in...size among American gymnasts since Comaneciís victory is startling. In 1976, the six U.S. Olympic gymnasts were, on average, stood 4 feet 9 inches tall, and weighed 106 pounds. By the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the average U.S. Olympic gymnast stood 4 feet nine inches tall, and weighed 83 pounds--six and a half inches shorter, and 23 pounds lighter than her counterpart sixteen years before" (Little Girls in Pretty Boxes). However not all gymnasts are blessed with naturally small bodies. Many resort to eating disorders including anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa in an attempt to obtain their coachís approval.

An aspiring female gymnast shoulders "not only her own expectations but those of her coach" ("Little Girls in Pretty Boxes"). Unfortunately, pleasing their coaches is no longer a matter of doing their best, but achieving the "sportís elusive ideal: perfection" ("Little Girls in Pretty Boxes"). Coaches not only pressure gymnasts to perform perfectly in competitions but, also strongly encourage them to maintain an unhealthy low weight because the smaller the gymnast, the easier it is for the girl to master difficult gymnastics skills. Coaches have developed "weight obsessed (ideals)Ö that equate female perfection with extreme thinness" ("USA Gymnastics, IOC Try to Tackle Eating Disorders"). Coaches force their pupils to obtain lower body weights with emotional abuse, by controlling what they eat, and demanding that they participate in extremely strenuous training sessions for hours a day. If the gymnast fails to conform to the coachís demands, the gymnast is often embarrassed and reprimanded in front of other gymnasts or spectators. The coach constantly tells the gymnast that she would perform better at a lower weight. When the coaches emotional abuse gymnasts, control what they eat, and force gymnasts to participate in strenuous training regimens they make gymnasts feel like they have completely loss control of all aspects their lives. Complete loss of control of oneís life spurs the decline of self esteem, which results in eating disorders because "[t]hey feel the only thing they control is the food they put in their bodies" ("Dying to Win").

One coach who has caused adolescent gymnasts to develop eating disorders and continues to cause eating disorders is world renound coach Bela Karolyi. Karolyi is known world wide for producing Olympic champions including Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton with his "bigger than life personal style with a win-at-all-costs approach" ("Leap of Faith"). Karolyi, like other coaches, is firm in his belief that the thinner a gymnast is the more likely it is for her to become a champion because she will be able to pick up new elements quicker and be able to perform them more efficiently.

Bela Karolyi has taken his belief that gymnasts should be thin to the extreme. He is known for forcing his gymnasts to train extra hard for extended periods of time on a diet consisting of very little food. On a typical day one of Karolyiís students was allowed to consume "an apple for breakfast, and for lunch, a salad and half a portion of...a main course" ("Little Girls in Pretty Boxes"). On less than athousand calories Karolyiís gymnast had to last through eight hours of strenuous training. Karolyiís gymnasts were very small in size however this was not enough for Karolyi. He constantly and relentlessly emotionally abused his pupils by calling them names, lowering their self esteem. According to Bela, "Betty Okino was a pregnant spider, Kim Zmeskal was a pumpkin or a butterball, Hillary Grivich was a tank" ("Little Girls in Pretty Boxes") and Erica Stokes was a pregnant goat.

Behavior like Bela Karolyiís is absolutely unacceptable. It is time for the abusive coaches who cause eating disorders to be reprimanded and learn new coaching techniques that will boast childrenísí self esteem instead of lowering it. Hopefully with some reform in the world of gymnastics the number of young adolescent gymnasts will decrease until the problem has been completely phased out of existence.


Herczog, Mary S. "Little Girls Lost?" Los Angeles Times 9 Sept. 1995

Hudson, Maryann. "World Gymnastics Trial." Los Angels Times 9 Sept. 1995

Noden, Merrel. "Dying to Win." Sports Illustrated Aug. 1994: 52-60 Whitney, Eleanor, and Frances Sizer.

Ryan, Joan. "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes." Cosmopolitian Sept. 1995: 246-252

Weisan, Debbie. "USA Gymnasts, IOC Try to Tackle Eating Disorders." USA Today Sept. 1995

Whitney, Eleanor, and Frances Sizer. Nutrition Concepts and Controversies. New York: West Publishing Company, 1994

This paper was prepared in 1997 for a colloquium facilitated by Stephen Wright, instructor for the Advocates for Children program, part of the College Park Scholars community at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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