Autonomy, eating disorders and elite gymnastics: ethical and conceptual issues

  • Bloodworth A
  • McNamee M
  • Tan J
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Participation in elite sport, and in particular those sports with special demands in terms of weight and shape, is associated with a higher risk for eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa [Sundgot-Borgen, J., & Torstveit, M. K. (2010). Aspects of disordered eating continuum in elite high intensity sports. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports , 20 ,112 – 121]. We report upon research exploring eating attitudes and behaviours within elite gymnastics. The study comprised 42 semi-structured interviews with gymnasts and support staff — 34 gymnasts and 9 staff/support staff. The majority of those interviewed were acrobatic gymnasts (22; 16 males and 6 females) with 7 rhythmic gymnasts (all female) and 5 tumblers (all female). The mean age of those gymnasts interviewed was 17.4. A dif fi culty in precisely delineating extreme eating patterns (disordered eating) from having an eating disorder was noted. Within an elite sports context behaviours thought to be pathological in a more general setting might be fairly commonplace and even functional to the athlete ’ s performance. The extent to which the athlete consents to these patterns of behaviour is problematic given their age and development. We argue that conceptualising consent as ‘ authority to be cared for by a trustworthy coach ’ , more felicitously applies to the child/adolescent elite sporting context, helping us understand not only the focus of the elite gymnast, but also their relationship with the coach and the coaches ’ responsibilities.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Autonomy
  • eating disorders
  • gymnastics
  • sport

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  • Mike McNameeSwansea University, College of Engineering, Swansea

  • Andrew Bloodworth

  • Jacinta Tan

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