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.
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
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,"
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
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
According to some reports, 32-year-old
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.