By Ken Reed

Sadly, some of the most successful track and field and cross country programs in the country emphasize body fat percentage over health, especially with female athletes.

The University of Oregon and the University of Colorado both have traditions of being elite track and cross country programs and national championship contenders, year in and year out. However, a couple ugly stories came out this past year highlighting abusive training practices at both programs. A feature story in The Oregonian highlighted the issue at Oregon under head coach Robert Johnson and a profile in Runner’s World brought to light similar problems at Colorado under head coach Mark Wetmore.

“People would do anything to trim their body fat percentage, resorting to diets that I’m sure our team nutritionists would not have endorsed had they known about them,” wrote Ashlyn Hare, a former track and field athlete at Oregon in a piece for Global Sport Matters. “Some would try to cut out carbohydrates. A few people relied on natural appetite suppressants. Nobody would eat dessert. No juice. No soda. Only water.”

According to Hare, for some of her teammates “body fat percentage was everything.”

“One coach told a teammate, who was a freshman at the time, that she didn’t make indoor nationals because she was too fat,” wrote Hare.

“Johnson had one athlete carry around a gallon of water to drink every day, because if she was more hydrated, she wouldn’t be as hungry. Another coach had a diet that they would hand out to his athletes that included things like only drinking water and no eating after 9pm.”

The situation at Colorado was similar to that at Oregon, according to former Colorado runner Kate Intile, who describes the culture at Colorado as “toxic.” “Their approach was unprofessional, demeaning, and harsh,” says Intile. “It led to so many eating disorders.”

The problem goes well beyond Oregon and Colorado, of course. In November last year, the New York Times interviewed nearly 20 athletes from track and field programs around the country. The resultant article detailed pressures from coaches to reduce body fat, resulting in physically and psychologically harmful results.

Johnson’s contract was not renewed at Oregon for this school year. That’s a positive development.

However, as long as track and field and cross country coaches (as well as coaches in other sports) focus on body fat percentage as a key performance indicator, the power they have over college athletes will ensure that this body shaming problem continues.

It’s a critical culture change issue.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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