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Former marathon star's shoplifting case shines light on eating disorders among athletes

In this Jan. 28, 2007 file photo, Yumiko Hara victoriously crosses the finish line at the Osaka Women's Marathon. (Mainichi)

"I want to go back and tell myself, 'Don't do it,'" former star athlete Yumiko Hara tearfully said when asked about the theft she is accused of committing, during her public trial at the Utsunomiya District Court Ashikaga Branch on Nov. 8.

    The 35-year-old former marathon runner who represented Japan at two athletics world championships was indicted in September on suspicion of shoplifting cosmetics and other items from a store in Tochigi Prefecture that July. But how did such a star come to sit in the dock?

    Hara won the 2005 then-Nagoya International Women's Marathon, and placed sixth in the following World Championships in Athletics in Helsinki the same year. She ended her decorated career in 2013, but she had struggled with an eating disorder from the time she was active in the sport, and there were suspicions that she also was a kleptomaniac.

    According to a survey carried out by a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare research team, an estimated 25,500 people nationwide have an eating disorder, and 90 percent of them are women. One of the classic symptoms is repeated shoplifting, due to a drop in decision making skills, addiction and other effects caused by malnutrition.

    The defendant entered the court room in a black pantsuit wrapped around her emaciated body. While tears rolled down her cheeks as she answered questions, she still answered clearly. "I was in view of the security camera, and I made eye contact with the store clerk, but I wanted to be freed (from my lifestyle struggles and shoplifting impulses)," Hara told the court about her state of mind at the time of the crime.

    Hara suggested she developed an eating disorder in 2000 when she was under strict weight regulations of her athletics team. With symptoms of cycling through binge eating and vomiting, when she felt stressed even after retirement, she would return to bulimic tendencies to cope. At one point she was seeking treatment at a hospital, but after being told by her relatives not to embarrass them, she is said to have stopped treatment. She is now reportedly undergoing occupational therapy at a specialized hospital.

    "They steal impulsively and out in the open, often have no memory of stealing and in many cases are actually carrying money with them," explains Mari Suzuki, director of the Japan Society for Eating Disorders and professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies about eating disorder-induced shoplifting.

    "Along with long-distance runners, athletes competing in events where maintaining one's figure and weight is necessary like figure skating and gymnastics are also prone (to developing eating disorders)," she says. "In Japan, there are many coaches who have no knowledge of the risks, and countermeasures are lagging behind."

    Beginning track and field in junior high school, a 32-year-old woman who excelled in the college "ekiden" relay running championships also struggled with the sport's dietary restrictions. She was continually told by her college coach to lose weight and to stop eating, and that "this fatty is overweight" at surprise weigh-ins. When she ate pork cutlet she would remove the batter, and she had one bowl of white rice per day. At a height of 160 centimeters, she weighed just 43 kilograms and only menstruated once every three months.

    Juntendo University women's athletics club coach and associate professor Natsue Koikawa surveyed 314 female university ekiden athletes and found that 72 percent had followed dietary restrictions, 73 percent had experienced an absence of menstruation and 46 percent had suffered stress fractures. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in the United States bars athletes who are malnourished or are not menstruating normally from participating in competitions.

    "Outside of Japan, the very idea of keeping track of female athlete's weight is criticized as sexual harassment," emphasizes Koikawa. "There are also dietary restrictions imposed on junior and high school students that can easily lead to eating disorders," she says, pointing to an overall organizational problem in Japan's track and field sports culture.

    At her trial, Hara did not dispute the fact that she was suffering from an eating disorder. Judge Kaizan Nakamura pressed Hara to "please receive treatment," acknowledging her eating disorder factored into her crime in his decision, and handed down a sentence of one-year imprisonment, suspended for three years.

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