Wednesday February 17th, 2010

It's a familiar story -- we look at the athletes' bodies and they seem unusual somehow. We think about what lengths they might have gone to in order to achieve such an abnormal build. Whatever it is they did, we wonder: Is it natural? Is it healthy?

The twist is that this time, we're not looking at bulked up ballplayers with bodies swollen by steroids. We're eyeing Olympic ski jumpers and their wispy builds. They look almost as thin as their skis as they soar through the air, like feathers in flight. Simon Ammann of Switzerland, who won the first gold medal of the Games in the normal hill ski jump, is 5-foot-8 and 121 pounds. That's almost supermodel skinny. Two of the three U.S. jumpers are similarly built -- Nick Alexander (5-11, 134) and Peter Frenette (5-10, 132), with the third, Anders Johnson, a relative hulk at 6-2, 160.

Most of the elite ski jumpers here are no more than 150 pounds, with many of them closer to 130, so it's safe to assume that they won't have to tearfully admit to Bob Costas that they bulked up on anabolic steroids any time soon. But the opposite problem, the possibility that some jumpers could be making themselves vulnerable to eating disorders or otherwise risking their health by striving to be underweight, is just as dangerous.

The International Ski Federation (FIS) isn't blind to the issue, although there are some observers who feel the organization could be doing more to combat it. The FIS instituted a rule in 2004 that linked maximum ski length to the jumper's body mass index (BMI), a height and weight proportion. The rationale was that although most jumpers want to be as light as possible for aerodynamic benefit, they also want the longest skis allowable for the same reason. The chance to use the longest allowable skis is meant to be incentive for the jumpers to keep their weight from sinking dangerously low.

The lowest allowable BMI for the maximum length skis is 18.5 kg/m2, which is the low end of the acceptable range of 18.5-25.0 for an average adult male. (We're only considering men because there is no Olympic ski jumping for women, but that's another story.) After the Olympics the FIS will raise the minimum BMI to 19.0. As a point of reference, a 5-10, 130-pound man would have a BMI in the 19.0 range. "The situation has been improved; to my mind it could be further improved," Wolfram Mueller, a professor at the University of Graz in Austria, told the New York Times. Mueller published a study about low-weight ski jumpers in the British Journal of Sports Medicine last December.

But some experts believe that the BMI rule has done what it was supposed to do -- curb what was becoming an increasingly worrisome trend in which rumors of eating disorders among ski jumpers were becoming common. "When I was jumping, before there was a minimum BMI, I definitely saw some disturbing things," says Alan Alborn, a member of the 1998, 2002 and 2006 U.S. teams. Alborn, who's 5-10, competed at 62 kg, or about 137 pounds. "There were guys who were hardly eating at all, and there was a lot of appetite suppression going on, with guys smoking, chewing tobacco, doing anything they could to keep their appetites under control. It led to other problems, like lack of energy and weakened immune systems. The guys who are jumping today may seem light compared to the average person, but I think they're much healthier than they used to be."

This dark side of ski jumping began to develop when the V-technique, in which the athletes form that shape with their skis while in the air, replaced the classic parallel style in the 1980s. The change in technique made it more advantageous to be light in the air than powerful on takeoff, and the race was on to be as thin as possible while still being able to train. By the early 2000s, there were widely held suspicions within the ski jumping community that some jumpers were taking the desire for low body weight too far. Suddenly counting calories and being obsessed with every ounce or kilogram was no longer just for female gymnasts, wrestlers and jockeys anymore.

One study found that 22 percent of the jumpers at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City were below the minimum BMI recommended by the World Health Organization. In 2003 German jumper Frank L�ffler claimed he was pressured by team officials to drastically lose weight and put on a diet that allowed him only 1,200 calories per day, which German officials denied. "I was given an ultimatum to starve myself from 72 kilograms to 68 kilos," L�ffler said in an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel. "But there was no way I could do this. This has nothing to do with ski jumping any more but battling the scales. It has become clear to me that our system is sick."

According to some reports, 32-year-old Janne Ahonen of Finland, a two-time silver medalist who retired in 2008, nearly fasted for weeks as he lost weight to make a comeback for these Olympics. Ahonen, listed as 6-0, 140, successfully made the team but like many other jumpers, he has declined to comment about weight issues in Vancouver. Ammann did the same when asked about his weight during a press conference.

Ski jumpers are clearly still a bit touchy when it comes to weight issues, which is understandable. There are few athletes who have to be as concerned with their precise weight, down to the gram. "The elite guys, like Ammann, have found the perfect balance," Alborn said. "They've found the lowest weight they can maintain while still remaining healthy and not sacrificing power."

And for the jumpers who haven't found that perfect weight, who have gone as low as they can safely go but who still think one less kilogram or two will get them to the medal stand? For them, ski jumping is a dangerous game, and we're not just talking about the landings.

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