Racing caught in the bulimia trap

After Jenny Wallwork revealed the problem of bulimia among elite athletes, The Mixed Zone’s editor Sue Mott hears from leading female jockey Lizzie Kelly how eating disorders affect the Sport of Kings

The celebrated Australian jockey, Michelle Payne, took a fall of the metaphorical kind a couple of weeks ago when she tested positive for a banned drug. It made headline news. She’s been news anyway since 2015 when she became the first woman to win the Melbourne Cup – the most popular horse race in Australia – in its 155-year history. Coincidentally wearing the colours of the suffragettes – purple, green and white – she then proceeded to make her famous “get stuffed” speech in a post-race interview and her fame/notoriety was secure.

“It’s such a chauvinist sport, a lot of owners want to kick me off,” she said, failing to take the bridle. “Everyone else can get stuffed [who] think women aren’t good enough.”

Cue outrage and celebration. Now she is serving a four-week ban, having accepted culpability for the doping violation. “I’m embarrassed and sorry,” she said at her hearing, explaining that she had been prescribed the drug following an operation on her pancreas.

But there’s a story behind the story. She tested positive for the banned drug phentermine, significantly an appetite suppressant, a chemical aid that some jockeys – not necessarily herself – have used to make the low weights at which they customarily ride. The sportswoman who told the chauvinist world to “get stuffed” raised the issue of jockeys, male and female, fearing to stuff themselves where food is concerned.

Despite the best efforts of the authorities, eating and race-riding can be strangers to one another. Tea and a fag equals breakfast in some quarters. Fasting, vomiting and dehydrating are all – and certainly have been – common practice in the sport. Being light is a passport to the best rides. “Making weight” (to ride at a certain weight in order to match the demand of a horse) is a regular necessity.

But for women in the sport, weight loss is challenged by all kinds of individual physiological matters that are yet to be fully investigated and understood.

“Most women are naturally lighter than men, which is great, but I’m slightly heavier which can be a nightmare,” said Lizzie Kelly, the first female jockey to win a Grade One race in Britain. The 23 year old made headlines this year by riding in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, the first female jockey to do so for 33 years. Scrutiny was intense. When she fell off at the second fence, the chauvinists, as Payne would say, were up and cheering. But ferociously undeterred, Kelly won on the same horse, Tea For Two, at Aintree’s Grand National meeting the following month. She is already one of the most visible female achievers in the sport – and forthright with it.

She talks about issues in the sport that the whiskered men who founded the Jockey Club in 1750 probably didn’t contemplate. “I sit at 10st 5lb, but when I go on my period I put on two maybe three pounds and all of a sudden it’s impossible to get rid of the weight.

“It’s a struggle because I’ve bloated up with water and I find sweating very hard. Most of the lads can go and sit in the sauna and sweat out two or three pounds – or even more, depending how long they sit or how well their body responds.

“When I was working at my first job for a trainer I told him I could do 9st 7lb. I couldn’t really. I was bottom weight all the time and my periods just stopped. It’s not good for you. And the worst thing is contraception. If you have a boyfriend, you need to be on something. Obviously the pill could put weight on so you have to be really careful. Boys don’t have to think of those things, girls do. It’s more of a struggle, especially when a male athlete’s body fat percentage is around ten per cent when a woman’s can be up at 20 per cent.

“I want to be sensible about the weights I do. Because there are whispers about how it can affect a woman’s fertility later in life. That’s not something I want to ruin just for the sake of riding a horse. So I’m a little bit pick and choose, but I think I do that for the right reason.”

People within the sport do acknowledge the existence of eating disorders and good practice diktats are issued with some regularity. But the evidence is that a problem remains.

“In America the jockeys call it ‘flipping’, but it’s basically bulimia,” continued Kelly. “There are particular sinks that are reserved for flipping – and you just think, ‘That’s not normal. That’s not OK’. It’s very prominent in Flat racing because, obviously, there are such low weights [involved]. It happens more often.

“For me, if the sport isn’t protecting people inside it, it’s not doing its job. Although we’re an entertainment industry – you can’t be toying with people’s health.”

It may be wise of the industry to turn to science to help female athletes, and the teams around them, understand the issues. A research scientist at University College London studying iron metabolism in endurance athletes, with a focus on females and the menstrual cycle, verifies Kelly’s anecdotal evidence.

“Woman are physiologically more variable than men,” said Georgie Bruinvels, who is researching a PhD on the subject. “This is primarily caused by the normal fluctuations they undergo. For example, body fluid regulation varies through the menstrual cycle and this can translate as weight fluctuations.

“Also, the control of fluid balance is regulated differently between men and women. Therefore, they should have different hydration and rehydration protocols. I’ve come across a study that found men can lose weight more easily from exercise – they have higher sweat rates.

“Essentially women and men are different, and should therefore train differently. Due to historical bias much research was conducted on men and due to the – now appreciated – physiological variation in women it is harder to conduct studies on female athletes. While we’re trying to attack this – an overall lack of understanding as to best practices in women – awareness needs to be raised.”

Michelle Payne’s drug offence may inadvertently lead to the raising of that awareness in the Sport of Kings where the queens, like Kelly, are looking quite lively, too.

WHAT THE BRITISH HORSERACING AUTHORITY SAYS ON THE ISSUE

“As the sport’s regulator the BHA has overall responsibility for the welfare of its participants. As a sport we are investing heavily in research regarding jockey nutrition and wellbeing and what we are finding is that it is possible for jockeys to make weight while maintaining a balanced, healthy diet, and that this has a positive effect on body composition, strength, reaction time and coordination.

“The advice being provided to jockeys is that they are not just jockeys, but elite athletes, and they should have an approach to nutrition, lifestyle and weight control that befits this. This approach will help jockeys enjoy a longer, safer and more successful career.

“Nutrition advice is provided through specialists at the Professional Jockeys Association and the sport’s training centres, as well as the sport’s link with Liverpool John Moore’s University, where a two-year research PhD into jockey nutrition and wellbeing is under way. The general advice is generic, but there is also tailored, individual advice available for all jockeys, which is bespoke to that individual’s physiology and any challenges they may face.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles

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