Sports chiefs attack 'thin to win' policy

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LEADING SPORTS organisations are challenging the "thin to win" syndrome among top athletes after research revealed that one in five female distance runners has an eating disorder.

UK Athletics, the national governing body, began circulating coaches and athletes with details of the warning signs and risks of anorexia and bulimia last month in a move agreed with the Eating Disorders Association.

The action comes after a study by researchers at Leeds university of 184 elite female distance runners found that 35 (19 per cent) had an eating disorder or had suffered from one in the past. The findings were presented yesterday at the London International Eating Disorders Conference but were first disclosed last year.

Angela Hulley, of the department of physical education, who led the study, said the role models for top women athletes were all thin. The European cross country champion, Sara Wedlund, admits she is anorexic and Lucy Hassell, the British international runner, was taken to hospital with anorexia. Ms Hassell was told by her doctors not to get out of her wheelchair because her dieting had weakened her muscles to the point where the strain might be too great for her heart. Yet at the same weight she was selected to compete in the world cross country championships, according to Ms Hulley.

Liz McColgan, the marathon runner, revealed that in 1988 in the run-up to the Seoul Olympics, her weight fell to seven stone. Ms Hulley said: "I am not saying she had an eating disorder but she felt the pressure. She lost weight at the suggestion of her coach and it affected her performance until her husband told her she was not eating enough."

Ms Hulley, who is a former marathon runner, said it was difficult to tell whether the pressures of sport caused eating disorders or the obsessional personality associated with eating disorders made for success in sport. "There is an overlap," she said.