Archive This article is from our archive and might not display correctly. Download PDF
IT WOULD BE EASY to assume that Olympic athletes are the healthiest of us all. The Olympics has always been a place where the body is pushed to its absolute limits, with results that range from impressive to spectacular. In some sports, however, this tendency has become dangerous to those who compete. One sport where an issue has become clear has been Ski Jumping. The problem of intense weight loss has polluted the ski jumping community, so much so that the ski jumpers reach the out-run grinning, but simultaneously gaunt.
This is an event that we do not hear much of, especially in the UK, aside from Eddie the Eagle and Channel 4's The Jump. However, across Continental Europe, the sport has a huge following with large crowds at events like the Four Hills tournament.
Polish athletes have dominated the sport for the last decade. Kamil Stoch won gold at both the Sochi Games in 2014 and Pyeongchang earlier this year. This has increased an already large fanbase in the country. Adam Malysz, the second most awarded Olympic ski jumper of all time, is regarded as a national hero.
For some, the sport is treated with an intensity that might surprise us in the UK. When the Polish team finished third in the team event, it was considered a complete failure to supporters in the country. This pressure to perform may be a contributing factor to why athletes push their bodies to such dangerous levels.
For many jumpers, losing as much weight as possible makes sense, as less weight means a bigger jump. Tests run by the Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS) showed that one-kilo of weight lost equated to a jump around 2.5m longer and vice-versa. This difference is significant considering that the measurement between the silver and gold medal positions for the large hill at the last Winter Olympics were only 3.4m apart. It makes a difference; so, as the sport has grown, the problem has too. The US National Library of Medicine found that the average BMI in jumpers has decreased by four units since 1970.
The Olympic Federation has taken alleviating measures, although their effectiveness is debatable. They have set a minimum BMI of 19 for all ski jump athletes, technically a healthy weight, and athletes who do not reach this minimum are penalised. This is done not by suspending them from competition but giving them shorter length skis. There is some evidence that the situation is improving because of this, with most ski jumpers now meeting requirements. But whilst it looks like the Olympic Federation is taking positive action, there are still many faults with their techniques.
For example, BMI is notoriously unreliable. Despite being used since the 1840s, it has often been criticised for not considering natural body differences. There are other alternatives, including the longer but more accurate process of body fat measurement.
It's also important to remember that there are larger restrictions on what jumper's wear. The suit is meticulously examined, with its size, thickness and material carefully regulated.
Fans are concerned too. In a post from October, Polish gold medal winner Kamil Stoch looks dangerously thin. In the comments a fan asked: "a kiedy masa?!" (Where's the weight?) to which another replied, "masa bedzie zime!" (the weight will be back in winter). The athletes may obey the rules for the ski season, but perhaps year-round the toll is greater.
It is concerning that while extreme weight loss is often examined in other areas such as gymnastics and modelling, it is unspoken of in relation to a high-profile winter Olympic sport. Is it because until this year women could not compete in ski jumping that we have not fully acknowledged it? Perhaps we remain more reluctant to recognise men as being underweight than we do women.
On the other hand, there is a big difference between ski jumping and modelling. There, the encouraged weight loss is aesthetic, but here the dilemma is greater. Losing weight makes a jump move substantially further, increasing your chances of winning a World Cup, an Olympic Medal and the added fame that comes with it. In all sports, being world class involves pushing and changing your body to the limits; be it in the way you eat, or the way you train. An array of other sports encounters these problems, including athletics and weightlifting.
The question raised: is it worth doing to be the best?
The issue is beginning to change for the better. Since organisers' regulations, most ski jumpers have been meeting the BMI requirements issued. With regular checks, and a more accurate way of measuring body health, hopefully the sport can eradicate the weight problems it has - even if this does come at the sacrifice of a longer jump.