In December, Norwegian broadcaster NRK reported that an unnamed member of the Norwegian national team had been flagged for low body weight and that coaches and staff were hoping to help the female athlete gain weight and return to better health.
Almost two months later, it seems likely that the woman in question was Kristin Størmer Steira, who was benched for the Rybinsk races this weekend due to low body weight. Norwegian daily newspaper Dagbladet broke the story on Thursday with an interview with Steira.
“I was frustrated when I heard [the decision],” Steira said in the interview. “I really wanted to go race in Russia. But after thinking about myself, is it actually just fine. I have respect for my health and I know how important it is. So I don’t have a problem following advice from professionals who know what they are talking about.”
While the decision was made by Norwegian team staff, it was reportedly based on health parameters suggested by the International Olympic Committee, which include multiple measures and are not limited to simply weight and fat.
Questions regarding eating disorders have surfaced repeatedly about the Norwegian national team, and not only about the perpetually-thin Steira. Teammate Vibeke Skofterud has discussed her history of eating disorders, and this spring Therese Johaug stated publicly that although she had lost weight, she did not have disordered eating.
This appears to be the first time that the team has sat out one of its stars due to weight concerns, and one of the first times in recent years that a major star has addressed these issues in such depth in public. Steira has been a member of winning relay teams at one Olympics and two World Championships, and has famously finished fourth in four Olympic races and one World Championships, failing so far to score an individual medal.
In Steira’s case, she too asserted that she did not have an eating disorder.
“I am naturally thin and would look the same if I didn’t train, just look at my mother and father,” she said in the Dagbladet interview.
Steira gave two reasons that she had moved into an unhealthy weight class. First, she was sick and had lost her appetite. Secondly, she cited turbulence in her personal life, including a breakup with a longtime partner, which had a similar effect.
“Taken together, it was simply too much for me,” she said. “I was very low both physically and mentally.”
She said that she told herself she had to eat, but couldn’t actually do it. Nevertheless, she maintained her normal training load, because skiing was a time for her to think. Steira admitted that this had not been wise.
Steira’s physician, Hans-Petter Stokke, explained to the press that when athletes burn four or five thousand calories a day, a suppressed appetite can pose huge problems.
“In our opinion, it is not advisable for her to compete at the top level right now,” he said.
Norwegian sports medicine expert Jorunn Sundgot-Borgen, who studied and taught at Arizona State University and Yale before working for Olympiatoppen, the Norwegian elite sports program whose guidelines were used to assess Steira, praised the national team’s actions.
“It’s great to see that they take athletes seriously, and that they care about athletes’ health,” she told NRK. “Several other sports have done a poor job on this topic. I hope that more begin to act like cross country.”
Steira, who is at home in Norway, is expected to return to competition this season. She and her coaches all reported that she was already improving on the weight front.
After the story broke, Steira tweeted, “Thank you all for the great support! I appreciate it!”