August 7, 2023
IFSC weighs in on athlete eating disorder concerns following criticism
The IFSC (International Federation of Sports Climbing) has responded to climbers and former members of its medical committee speaking out about outdated health standards in competitive climbing following criticism of increasing disordered eating within the sport.
Members of its executive board quit last month over what they claim was “non-action” in response to the problem in the sport.
Doctors Eugen Burtscher and Volker Schöffl resigned from the IFSC on July 5 following their dissatisfaction with the IFSC to address the RED-S problem in competitive sports climbing.
For the past month, climbers have publicly spoken out on social media about the issue after the federation has not completed the promised re-evaluation of the BMI (Body Max Index) testing protocols. A system change that would potentially help prevent an increase of eating disorders in sports climbing, as believed by the members of the medical commission.
Back in January, the IFSC told members at one of its executive board meetings about its plans to review and re-evaluate the medical screening system before climbing competitions in the upcoming system, which would require athletes to undergo BMI screenings.
IFSC President Marco Scolaris at the time said: “We, as the world governing body of Sport Climbing, feel the essential mandate to always put our athletes first, and protect them.”
The BMI screenings were introduced to protect climbers from Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports (RED-S), as a response to significant amenorrhea and low bodily mass in found elite female climbers.
Athletes and physically active people are at risk of RED-S, which is a disorder that can include low energy availability due to low-calorie intake, with or without disordered eating, that might lead to such consequences as amenorrhea, lack of consistent menstrual periods, as well as low bone density.
The IFSC has measured BMI since 2012 and began regular screenings in 2021, which saw the BMIs of climbers tested and if found too low according to the current standard, which is 17.5 for women and 18.5 for men, they were disqualified from the competition until further notice.
The IFSC medical commission as well as many elite climbers, such as Olympic gold medalist rock climber Janja Garnbret, have demanded changes in the policy to a higher and more acceptable BMI – 18 for women and 18.5 for men as well as a more in-depth procedure in case of a flagged athlete with a lower BMI. This new procedure would include further medical examination, blood tests and psychological screenings, which will uncover disordered eating habits in athletes and notify their National Federations.
Garnbret told the public via her Instagram page: “RED-S screenings should be mandatory for all World Cup and Continental Cup participants. And yes, I believe that sanctions from competitions are needed if thresholds set by experts are not met.”
“This being said, I‘m sceptical towards putting national federations in charge of this as for understandable reasons there can be too much personal closeness to see the truth or dependency on an athlete’s success to actually make the necessary calls.”
As a sport where you have to fight gravity, climbing has a high percentage of eating disorders.
According to research conducted by researchers from Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, an 8.6% prevalence of disordered eating habits was found in a sample of 498 sport-lead rock climbers. Gender-wise in the present study, the prevalence of disordered eating was higher among female climbers compared to male climbers (16.5% and 6.3%, respectively).
On July 6 following the resignations of Dr Burtscher and Dr Schöffl from their voluntary positions, the IFSC issued a statement stating that no screenings were conducted this competition season but will be performed from now on and once again expressed its desire to look over the protocols, though mentioning that the changes made will not go into effect up until 2024.
Dr Schöffl, who has been with the medical commission since 2019, said in his Instagram post: “We have pointed out the problem [to the IFSC] and possible solutions to the sports director and board continuously and repeatedly.”
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The IFSC has also previously addressed the issue. On August 4th 2021, it released a statement in which it shared concerns for climbers’ health, as well as highlighting the fact that it is utmostly the National Federation’s responsibility to take care of climbers.
The IFSC statement at the time said: “The health and wellbeing of our athletes is of utmost importance to the IFSC. We take the matter of deliberately induced underweight climbers seriously.”