Tennis: Outcry over tennis girls' diets claims outcr

Australian academy launches inquiry after players tell of eating disorders
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The Independent Online
THE PRESTIGIOUS Australian Institute of Sport has launched an investigation into claims by a group of women tennis players that they were forced into unsuitable diet regimes as part of their training, which left some with eating disorders.

The allegations involve 34 former scholarship holders at the Institute, beginning in 1981 but including some who were being coached at Canberra as recently as three years ago.

One former national junior champion, Esther Knox, lost over half a stone in nine days on what she described as "a semi-starvation diet" consisting of just fruit for breakfast and lunch, and small portions of meat and salad for dinner.

But the worst moment of her internship, in 1992-93, came when her coach, Peter Campbell, videoed his slimmed-down charge in action and, Ms Knox alleges, focussed the camera on her legs, "to show me how much better I looked. I was completely humiliated."

Another player, Brenda Catton, has recalled how pressure to lose weight from her coach at the Institute led to her "vomiting before each match" including games at Wimbledon in 1981, when she had lost nearly two stone in weight. Soon after arriving on her scholarship, she says, coach Ray Ruffels would call her "fat and slow" and began to pick on her for being unable to lift weights. She developed anorexia nervosa, and later bulimia, which took 10 years to overcome.

"The only reason I developed anorexia was to please Ray," Ms Catton told the Sydney Daily Telegraph. "They were always on to me about losing weight." Mr Ruffels, who left the AIS in 1990, denied calling her fat, though he conceded that he tried to instil a "disciplined" approach to diet.

Another girl, Renee Reid, responded to similar pressures by going on eating binges. The first her parents knew of the problem, after two years of her scholarship, was when the AIS sent her a memo to the family home, dated February 28, 1995, after a tournament in Ballarat, Victoria.

In it, her coach at the Institute, Chris Kachel, wrote: "Following the results of your physical testing at last week's AIS scholarship holders' camp, I am writing to express my supreme disappointment.

"It is unacceptable for an AIS tennis athlete to have a skinfold reading of 181, when the expected range is approximately 80-100." The memo confirmed the suspension of scholarship entitlements, including an allowance worth A$300 per week for financial support while playing in overseas tournaments, though the player herself had been told verbally, in front of other trainees.

Her mother, Sandra Reid, said: "Renee had three options - anorexia, bulimia or eat - that's what happens to girls if they are called fat. I'm glad she did go out and eat because if she chose the other alternatives she would be dead."

Another former trainee, Linda Cassell, who is now a nun, recalled hearing her fellow players, in 1981-82, vomiting in the bathrooms under a regime which, she said, placed more stress on players' appearance in their tennis outfits than the actual level of performance: "They lived on lettuce, they jogged in glad wrap by night." Ms Reid complained that, when she was removed from the programme, she had proved herself capable of beating other, slimmer trainees on court.

The allegations have brought to a head long-standing criticisms of AIS methods, widely admired and emulated in other sports, being applied to tennis players. Margaret Court, an Australian sporting legend for her feats as the only woman to win the Grand Slam of all four major championships in the same calendar year, said the game at the top level required individual coaching.

"I believe champions are very sensitive," she declared. "When they get into squad coaching at an early age, they get walked over, they all look like robots. I wouldn't have survived if I had gone into the AIS."

Australia's current big name tennis stars are both men - Mark Philippoussis, who has always been coached by his father, albeit with financial support from the AIS, and Patrick Rafter, a "late developer" who only reached his top 10 status well after he started working with a full-time individual coach.

In a media release, the AIS points to more modest successes by female graduates of its coaching system, with Annabelle Elwood, who achieved a world ranking of 55, and Alicia Molik, who rose during her internship from 660 to 163, being the most notable.

The Institute's director, John Boultbee, said neither he nor his coaching staff could be blamed for Australia's failure to produce outstanding women tennis players to set alongside world-beating alumni from programmes in athletics, water sports and a host of other fields.

Mr Boultbee plans to interview journalists, officials, former coaches and players to get to the bottom of the matter. But he added: "Surely Australian taxpayers wouldn't expect coaches to stand by and allow athletes not to achieve fitness levels at the expense of other committed athletes who can meet those criteria." Despite the help of a range of professionals, trainees themselves were "accountable on issues such as fitness and discipline."