OK, so maybe there isn't such a thing as an "ordinary" athlete. I'm probably kidding myself when I think that there are obsessive athletes and non-obsessive athletes, as if the line between them were a lot stricter than it really is. In statistical terms we would call this line a "zone of rarity," dividing one population from another, but more and more scientists recognize that these hypothetical zones of rarity may not really exist when it comes to mental illnesses. Instead, the border may be just a thin, arbitrary dividing line along a continuum from health to disorder.
Why this scientific digression? I was in a bookstore yesterday and had time to peruse some magazines before meeting my parents. I am not a triathlete, but the cover of the latest issue of Triathlete caught my eye. "BODY IMAGE: Are triathletes obsessed?" it asks, alongside an image of a very fit female athlete in a bikini. It turns out that this also happens to be the "special swimsuit edition." What irony!
The fact that the editors would dare to ask this question alongside an image of almost impossible beauty also suggests that this magazine just doesn't "get it": you can't pretend to be concerned about your readers' obsession with body image, and then promote an ideal that is so difficult to reach, without calling into question your own integrity as a publication.
If all triathletes feel that they should look like this woman (or her male equivalent), I would say that yes, they probably are obsessed with their body image. So what, if anything, makes these folks different from people with eating disorders? Where is the line between wanting to compete for the sake of the game, and wanting to compete to have this (or another) body?
I am not sure myself where this line can be drawn. In my own life, I have had to set it for itself, to know what feels healthy and what feels disordered in relationship to exercise. But I don't feel comfortable speaking for all of the athletes out there who are working to improve their performance through improving their bodies: what right do I have to draw the line for them, when I cannot claim to understand their motivations in the first place? There must be triathletes who participate in the sport for reasons other than enhancing what nature gave them; I would like to know more about how they stay focused on those goals, and what pressures they feel to have a beautiful body, apart from how fast that body is.