Weighty Matters: Sportswomen, Wimbledon and the Perils of Body Image

28/06/2012 16:08 BST | Updated 28/08/2012 10:12 BST

There are certain points on the calendar when even those Brits who profess disinterest in all things sporting find their attention captured and pulses quickened by events on the field of play.

They may have succeeded in blocking out England's failure at Euro 2012.

Some curmudgeons might also have made advance plans to avoid what they believe to be Olympic overkill. Although you and I might view this late Summer burst of torches, tears and golden triumphs as a joyous indulgence, they will see only traffic jams, expense and Blur's Hyde Park-life swansong.

Few, though, can remain immune to the charms of Wimbledon Championships each June and July. For two weeks, they consume every morsel of information about Andy Murray's dogs and dodgy back as eagerly as those in SW19 do over-priced strawberries and cream.

Their annual frenzy is fuelled by media supplements and speculation. The Lawn Tennis Association will no doubt welcome the spotlight being directed on a sport which is largely ignored by a mass domestic audience for the rest of the year.

However, there are people who don't just wonder whether all the attention increases the likelihood of finding a future British Grand Slam winner but if it actually is good for some of those currently under scrutiny.

Britain's number two woman player, Laura Robson, exited Wimbledon at the hands of the former French Open champion Francesca Schiavone. But it was her treatment at the hands of some of the press which caught my eye.

Now 18, and climbing up the world rankings four years after her claiming the Wimbledon's girls' singles title, Robson was described as "burly", "beefed up" and "muscular" by one particular newspaper.

Such attributes are not necessarily negatives for a competitive and ambitious professional athlete but we live in an age when image can count for more than substance. Indeed, it is a cause of irritation to some top female players that peers have accumulated more recognition and wealth because of their looks than their abilities on-court.

The critique of Robson's physique came exactly a week after the same newspaper carried a report from an inquest into the death of a 14-year-old girl who had been bullied about her weight.

Women tennis players with an even greater winning percentage than Laura Robson have fallen foul of the desire to improve their game and not be criticised for their appearance - sometimes fatally so.

It's a topic in which I have maintained an interest since presenting and producing a BBC Radio Five Live documentary into the toll taken on the health of elite sportswomen by their will to win.

They are, it seems, more prone to develop something known as the 'Female Athletic Triad', an unholy and distinctly unhealthy mix. First set out at a sports medicine conference in 1993, the triad has become the subject of extensive expert enquiry.

In short, the energy that female athletes devote to their respective disciplines means that some don't fuel their bodies' other natural demands. That can result in having their menstrual cycles shut down, the early onset of irreversible osteoporosis and eating disorders.

While putting my programme together, I heard from one top tennis pro who needed psychiatric help after being needled by competitors and media alike over her weight. One of the sport's senior administrators felt that kind of adverse attention might deter other young women from pursuing their ambitions.

I spoke to a former British track athlete who broke a bone in her back during a race because of the strain of training and competition. Doctors later told her that she could only have children if she drastically reduced her sporting workload.

And I interviewed the mother of the US gymnast Christy Henrich who weighed just 47 pounds when she died in 1994 ( In a sport renowned for the diminutive size of its participants, Henrich had developed eating disorders after a competition judge described her as fat.

It might ease British consciences to imagine such crude appraisals being the sole domain of other, foreign, driven sporting environments. Let us remember, then, that heptathlete Jessica Ennis - the woman who arguably has more attention focused on her ahead of the London Olympics than any other British female athlete - was, according to her coach, accused of being overweight by an un-named national team official (

The constant presence of the Ennis image in the news and advertising media at the moment brings to mind another poster girl, one possibly more connected to Laura Robson's predicament.

Fiona Walker was just 18 - the same age as Robson - when she hitched up her tennis skirt and scratched her backside for a photograph taken by her then boyfriend. The image went on to sell more than two million copies for the poster shop Athena.

Last year, the curator of an exhibition about how tennis had featured in art through the ages said the image was the one ''most associated with tennis in this country''.

Trying to find a more contemporary equivalent among those professionals on the hallowed greens of the All-England Club - and criticising those who do not fulfill the petite, blonde ideal - may provide a yearly and seemingly innocent fascination for a minority of my colleagues in the press, almost as much as a sport as the tennis on show.

Laura Robson strikes me as centred, sorted and secure sportswoman capable of taking criticism in her athletic stride. Sadly, there is a body of evidence suggesting that ill-judged remarks only add unwanted and unbearable pressure to the strain of competition for other female athletes.