- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 9, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY While most Winter Olympians eat like horses, Alan Alborn nibbles like a jockey.
On a crash diet.
To start the day, it's low-fat cereal. For lunch, it's a palm-size piece of chicken.
And for dinner?
"You're back to breakfast cereal," said Alborn, who as a member of the United States Olympic ski jumping team will begin competition tomorrow. "Or maybe rice."
In the high-flying world of ski jumping, Alborn's dietary habits are hardly unique. Once the province of squat-legged power jumpers, ski jumping has become a sport of featherweights, an event in which you are at least on the medal podium what you eat.
"[Weight] is the one thing we're constantly battling with," U.S. jumper Clint Jones said. "The focus in ski jumping is to be as light as possible but at the same time maintain your strength."
He who weighs least, flies farthest. That's been the rule of thumb albeit a bony, emaciated thumb in ski jumping for much of the past decade, thanks largely to the widespread acceptance of a "V"-shaped jumping style that favors slender physiques.
The result? A generation of jumpers who count calories, watch the scale and look a whole lot like Ally McBeal:
Alborn, America's best medal hope at age 21, is 5-foot-11 but weighs 130 pounds.
Jones, 17, is 5-foot-9 and weighs 125 pounds.
Germany's Sven Hannawald, a gold medal favorite and the winner of four of the last five World Cup events, is listed at 6-foot-1/2-inch, 140 pounds. Reportedly, he has been called a "borderline anorexic."
At 6-foot-2 and 160 pounds, Brendan Doran is the giant of Team USA. Relatively speaking.
"It all comes down to how much you weigh and how strong you are," Alborn said. "If you don't have the body type, you can't compete."
It wasn't always this way. Before the introduction of the "V" technique, in which the jumper brings the rear tips of his skis together, ski jumping was dominated by athletes who generated distance through leg power.
In 1976, Hans-Georg Aschenbach of East Germany took home Olympic gold with a long jump of 84.5 meters. He later confessed to taking anabolic steroids for eight years.
"Guys were just counting on jumping as hard as possible, and then falling," Alborn said.
That all changed following the 1992 Albertville Games, where Finland's Toni Nieminen parlayed the "V" style into double gold and national folk hero status. Jumpers adopted the winning technique en masse, replacing the previous method of "falling" through the air with something close to a glide. In doing so, they discovered that lighter weights meant longer jumps as much as a meter for every kilogram lost.
"Now everybody's trying to emphasize being like a bird, doing as little as they can on the takeoff and then just flying," Alborn said.
To stay slim, the jumpers of Team USA follow a diet of 1,000 to 1,500 calories per day. Overseen by a team nutritionist, it's a strict regimen in which dramatic fallout can result from a single ill-conceived snack.
Like, for instance, Doritos.
"The more [sodium] you intake, the more water it takes for your body to digest it," Alborn said. "So you'll go have some chips and salsa, and then the next day you'll be two pounds heavier. It's pretty frustrating. If you don't think about your eating for a couple of days because it's an off time, it can screw up the whole next week of training, when you're a little bit heavier than you want to be."
The payoff for digestive discipline? Last season Alborn set the U.S. distance record by jumping 210 meters. Doran estimates that none of his teammates has more than 4 percent body fat.
"We won't [be at McDonalds]," Doran said of the ubiquitous official Olympic sponsor. "We try not to eat bad foods and steer clear of fat altogether It's a lifestyle, and it's hard."
Perhaps too hard. Within the ski jumping community, anorexia has become a major concern, and a 1998 study by the University of Sport in Oslo found that 16 percent of Norwegian jumpers had symptoms of an eating disorder.
Norway's Oevind Berg, the 1993 world champion, quit the sport in 1996. He reportedly told a Norwegian newspaper that he was tired of the crash diets required to remain 17 pounds under his normal weight of 176.
"With low body weight being a competitive advantage, there's a danger that [jumpers] might slip into eating disorders," said Wolfram Mueller, an Austrian scientist who is an expert on the aerodynamics of ski jumping.
To reduce risk, the International Ski Federation reportedly has considered minimum height-to-weight requirements for jumping. However, the idea was shelved last year following protests from the German and Austrian ski federations.
Low body weight among ski jumpers is also the subject of two separate International Olympic Committee studies under way at the Salt Lake Games: one to develop a winter sports nutritional manual, the other to bring "normal" size athletes back into ski jumping.
"We have to find a way to give athletes with a higher body weight an aerodynamic advantage," said Mueller, who is heading up the second study. "There are several possibilities. For instance, we could give them longer skis."
In the meantime, skinny remains chic at least so long as the jumpers can put up with it. According to Alborn, there's a reason the average age on Team USA is just 22.
"The older you get, the more challenging it gets because of your body," he said. "And more than 35, it's going to be harder to compete with somebody like me."
Alborn recalls 1998 Olympic teammate Casey Colby, who abruptly quit the sport just as he was reaching his prime.
"He got so tired of trying to be light and skinny all the time," Alborn said. "So he gained like 40 pounds. And that was it."


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