Eating disorders: figure skating’s ‘dirty little secret’

Figure skaters speak up about battling eating disorders due to the stresses of competing

Four years ago, Russia's Yulia Lipnitskaya had the world at her 15-year-old feet - then the ground crumbled under her.

The figure skater had emerged as one of the golden athletes of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, enchanting audiences to win the team title - and receiving a very public bear hug from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But for this year's Pyeongchang Winter Games, Lipnitskaya is back home in Russia, her skates gathering dust, after she retired in September due to health issues related to anorexia.

Eating disorders have been described as "skating's dirty little secret" - partly because sufferers usually strive to keep their problem well hidden.

Canada's Gabrielle Daleman said she received messages from many other skaters when she opened up about her problems.

"I don't know if it's the sport or if it's just the way people look at themselves," the 20-year-old said. "I just wasn't happy with the way I was looked, from being bullied (at school) and everything, I was getting criticised.

"I tried to look a certain way what people wanted me to look, rather than just feel good about myself. So that's something I've learnt over the past year."

Daleman, who finished 15th in the women's singles at Pyeongchang, said her eating disorder started at school, where she was bullied over a learning disability.

"I got a lot of messages from other skaters. Ashley Cain messaged me, Gracie (Gold) messaged me, Evgenia Medvedeva messaged me.

"A lot of skaters came up saying thank you for sharing the story, because not a lot of people are open with it."

One of those she mentioned, Gracie Gold, a two-time American champion, pulled out of this Olympics, citing an eating disorder, depression and anxiety.

In 2005, an eating disorder forced American skater Jenny Kirk to end her skating career in the run-up to US team selection for the 2006 Turin Games.


In Lipnitskaya's case, anorexia was ruining her life.

She sought help in a clinic in Israel in January, before calling time on her skating career at the age of just 19.

She has spoken about her struggles, saying as a shy girl she'd found it hard to cope with her sudden fame.

"Ever since childhood I've been a very strong introvert," she said in an interview with the Russian skating federation.

"Speaking with an unfamiliar person meant I had to make a real effort.

"Anorexia is a 21st-century illness and it's fairly common. Unfortunately, not everyone can cope with it."

"It was really hard to take the decision to quit... but I talked to my mother and we decided to start a new life," she added.

Skating is tough on a developing body - hours and hours of draining, repetitive training, jumping higher, spinning faster.

It is also an aesthetic sport where competitors wear skimpy or figure-hugging outfits - and where the spotlight can be cruel, shining on some but not others.

Skating's ruling authority, the International Skating Union, when asked about eating disorders, referred AFP to the medical guidelines on its website, which say skaters and coaches are educated about health, nutrition and injury.

"Any reported case affecting the health of an athlete is taken very seriously," it says.

For Daleman, meanwhile, there is an enormous sense of pride over speaking out about her story and making it to her second Olympics.

"I'm not ashamed of it. I'm proud of the struggles I've been through and I'm going through and I'm very happy to be here and what I've been able to do," she said. - AFP