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Ex-marathon star's 2nd shoplifting case sheds light on eating disorders among athletes

Former marathon runner Yumiko Hara speaks about her future plans in a press conference held in Gunma Prefecture's Ota City Hall, on Dec. 3, 2018. (Mainichi/Kenshiro Nishime)

OTA, Gunma -- Former star marathon runner Yumiko Hara's repeated apprehension for shoplifting, a crime said to be prevalent among those with eating disorders, has shed light on the symptoms many female athletes face due to excessive stress from controlling their body weight.

The former world championship marathon runner joined an athletics team with strict weight regulations after graduating from high school. She was forced to measure her weight four to six times a day and to eat her meals in front of her coach. Her wallet would be confiscated to prevent her from spending money on food. In a news conference on Dec. 3, an emotional Hara said she felt as if the team was "training a pet rather than a human being."

The 36-year-old started to vomit things she ate in order to maintain her weight and developed an eating disorder. She eventually resorted to repeated shoplifting out of her desire for food.

Eating disorders like the one Hara suffered can result in malnutrition, causing health problems like amenorrhea and osteoporosis as well as a drop in decision-making ability. Because of this, some experts are urging sports instructors to acquire knowledge on the disorders, fearing more athletes could find themselves in such a position.

Mari Suzuki, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, points out that eating disorders are mental illnesses causing patients to reject food or eat excessive amounts due to psychological stress. Numerous female athletes suffer from abnormal eating habits, she says. These include long-distance runners, who are believed to benefit from lighter builds, as well as rhythmic gymnasts and figure skaters, due to the perception in their disciplines that slim physiques are desirable.

Suzuki and other intellectuals are offering lectures to athletes and instructors to help them gain a better understanding of eating disorders. Still, they say "only a handful of top competitors recognize the importance of such knowledge."

In handing down the ruling, the Ota branch of the Maebashi District Court on Dec. 3 said the 36-year-old "should be given another chance to rehabilitate within society" instead of receiving criminal punishment.

Suzuki says the judgment allowing Hara to continue treatment within society was "good for the defendant, although her crime should not be tolerated." According to the medical professor, it takes about five to 10 years to fully recover from eating disorders. Aside from curing the body and the mind, it is important for patients to live in a society surrounded by reliable people.

Hara revealed after the ruling to "have been only thinking about how to hide from the public" after being arrested in July 2017 for committing another theft in the Tochigi Prefecture city of Ashikaga. However, she participated in athletic events and other activities after being arrested this time. The former world champion pledged to fully recover from her symptoms as she realized there were people supporting her.

In the news conference, which lasted about an hour and 20 minutes, Hara warned people not to underestimate eating disorders. She urged those troubled by kleptomania, or the recurring urge to steal, to seek help. "While it requires courage to talk about yourself, everything will change after confiding in a person you trust," she said, adding, "The person consulted should take the matter seriously when interacting (with the patient)."

(Japanese original by Kenshiro Nishime, Maebashi Bureau)

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