Don’t let the gold medal fool you: Even Olympic athletes struggle with body image

Don’t let the gold medal fool you: Even Olympic athletes struggle with body image

Just cuz they're fit doesn't mean they feel that way

By Jacqueline Doorey, CBC Sports
July 17, 2016
Olympic champion Rosie MacLennan speaks candidly about how she came to accept her body in the competitive world of trampoline gymnastics.

The first time trampoline gymnast Rosie MacLennan competed for Canada on the international stage, her focus wasn't on her routine.

Instead, looking around the gym that day, all the 17-year-old could think about was how out of place she felt next to her smaller, slimmer competitors.

"I remember warming up and looking at the other athletes, and looking at myself, and feeling a little bit uncomfortable," said MacLennan, now 27. "It's not what you should be focused on before you get up and jump on a trampoline 20 feet in the air."

Today, MacLennan is the reigning Olympic trampoline champion — and proud of her body. Her build — five feet two inches tall, with powerful legs — has proven incredibly effective at generating the energy she needs on the trampoline to propel her into the difficult twists and flips that earn top marks.

Beach volleyball player Sarah Pavan speaks frankly about what it's like to be six feet five inches.

But getting that confidence wasn’t easy.

"From the outside, people look in and see [an athlete] look fit or jacked, or something like that, and they assume that because they look a certain way, they feel a certain way," she said. "But that's not necessarily the case.

"In a lot of sports there's a body type that's ideal. A lot of athletes put a lot of pressure on themselves to conform to that."

'Full-figured, curvy, athlete'

When the Rio Olympic Games get underway, high-performance athletes will once again permeate the media; a reminder that athletic bodies come in many more weights, shapes and sizes than are typically shown in magazines, on television and in endorsements.

"If you look at any magazine rack, women are only supposed to look one way," said Penny Werthner, a former Olympian, the dean of kinesiology at the University of Calgary and a renowned sports psychologist.

She says fitness and fashion magazines set an unrealistic standard for an athlete's physique – "six feet tall and 110 pounds" – but it's this physique an athlete typically needs to secure sponsorship and endorsement deals.

Canadian hammer thrower Sultana Frizell, a two-time Olympian, has no time for people who'll judge how "girly" she looks.

Six feet tall, 240 pounds, with a larger-than-life personality, Canadian hammer thrower Sultana Frizell is a commanding presence. She's also a two-time Olympian, two-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist and 2015 Pan Am silver medallist.

Frizell carries her weight in the lower half of her body, which helps counter the weight of the hammer and create ball speed when she throws.

"I'm an athlete and I'm an Olympian, but my body is not a typical athlete build," said Frizell.

"Like, if you wanted to go on e-Harmony, I would have to check the box [for] 'Full-figured, curvy, athlete.' It's kind of like, 'You need that box.'"

Frizell says she didn’t truly identify as an athlete until she moved from her hometown of Perth, Ont. (population: less than 6,000) to the University of Georgia (population: 45,000).

“When I got on campus I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m not the biggest thing in here,’” she said. “I feel good about myself.”

"My legs are just tiny little sticks," laughs world champion kayaker Mark de Jonge.

But outside of U.S. college athletics and her professional circle, Frizell doesn’t often see her body type reflected back at her.

“I think we’re just … bombarded with that type of body and you don’t get to see the other athletes,” she said. “As a hammer thrower, I’m not really in the media too much, along with my colleagues.

“I feel like we just need to get the different body images out there.”

When diet destroys

In addition to societal pressures, athletes face very real expectations about their physical condition, including the expectation they should have less fat and more muscle. Sports physiologists monitor almost everything: bone density, respiratory functionality, metabolic rate.

“[Athletes'] bodies are … analyzed a little bit more,” said Judy Goss, a mental performance consultant with the Canadian Sport Institute of Ontario. “[Personnel] do watch your body fat percentage, they do watch your muscle mass, how much lean body mass you have [compared] to body fat. But it’s not an easy formula to do.”

To top it off, Goss says, athletes constantly measure themselves against each other, teammates and rivals alike, “whether it’s an accurate comparison or unrealistic comparison.”

'What I do should be fierce and sexy, not how I look crossing the finish line,' says distance runner Lanni Marchant.

Rio-bound Canadian distance runner Lanni Marchant, who’s five feet one inch tall, describes herself as short with a muscular lower half. When in full training mode, she runs up to 165 kilometres per week and to the average person looks to be in incredible shape.

But Marchant, 32, says she had issues with food while becoming a professional marathoner.

“I call it eating like an asshole,” Marchant told CBC Sports. “You’re really obsessive about your food and cutting things out and doing everything you can in your power to control your weight and your size.”

As an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Marchant was painfully aware of her thick quads and muscular glutes, particularly when she stood on the starting line next to runners so small she “felt the size of four of them.”

Beginning in 2007, at law school, the pressure to eat less and train hard proved too much and she got “stress fracture after stress fracture after stress fracture.” By the end of her first year, she was barely 90 pounds. By year two, she’d fractured her pelvis. In 2012, the year Marchant began to seriously consider running professionally, she fractured her ankle.

Distance runner Lanni Marchant is the first Canadian woman to qualify for both the 10,000 metres and marathon at a single Olympic Games. (Mark Humphrey/Associated Press) Distance runner Lanni Marchant is the first Canadian woman to qualify for both the 10,000 metres and marathon at a single Olympic Games. (Mark Humphrey/Associated Press)

As Marchant soon realized, success as a runner and proper diet go hand in hand.

After getting her “head on straight,” Marchant said she hit a turning point in 2012 when she ran a half-marathon and almost beat her personal best time despite feeling far from her definition of fit.

But following the event, a fellow runner emailed a photo of Marchant during the race to others in the running community and suggested Marchant was eating too much fast food.

“As much as I had made huge strides, in seeing that picture and recognizing that’s not me at my fittest but I still ran [really] good, it was kind of disheartening,” said Marchant, who realized too much emphasis is put on how a person looks as opposed to how they perform.

“But if anything it helped me become more vocal about [my issues],” she said. “There needs to be people like me who want to sit and be open about it and say, ‘It sucks.’”

A stocky frame and A stocky frame and "bubble butt," as she calls it, helped Rosie MacLennan leap to the top of her sport, and a gold medal at the 2011 Pan American Games. (Hector Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images)

Managing the realities of sport

To keep athletes on the right path, Goss suggests athletes, parents, coaches, national sport organizations and the media emphasize that athletes’ bodies shouldn’t conform to body-fat percentages or a sport-specific shape.

“You can’t say that this person needs to be exactly this weight,” she said. “They need to have a range of where that balance is between leanness and power.

“To me [the solution] is a little bit of a societal thing to accept and work with what you got.”

That kind of support is what put MacLennan on the right track. The self-doubt she experienced in her first year on the senior team manifested itself off the trampoline — and it was her mother who took notice.

“She sat me down basically and said, ‘Do you want to be the skinniest girl on the trampoline, or do you want to be the best girl on the trampoline? Because it’s not necessarily going to be both,’” said MacLennan. “It kind of took me back and it made me realize everyone has their strengths, and everyone has their weaknesses.”

“But I think the most important thing is finding a place where you’re happiest: where you feel fit, where you feel healthy, where you feel agile or whatever the assets that you need for your sport. Focus on that.

“Don’t focus on trying to lose five pounds because that’s what the next athlete does.”



Reported, written and packaged by: Jacqueline Doorey

Produced and edited by: Andrea Lee-Greenberg

Additional interviewing by: Anson Henry

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