Former Olympic athlete Colin Jackson talks to Lisa Salmon about eating disorders, overcoming hurdles and the importance of self-belief.
As a former world champion hurdler, Colin Jackson has always been trim and fit. But appearances can be very deceptive and – as shocking as it may at first sound – during his racing days, Jackson was suffering from an eating disorder.
It’s another example of how eating disorders really can affect anyone – males and females of all ages, from all walks of life. And how you look to the outside world, and indeed even your weight, often isn’t what defines the problem.
It’s fair to say Cardiff-born Jackson, now 52, had a glittering career as an athlete – successes included a an Olympic silver medal, becoming world champion twice and going undefeated at the European Championships for 12 years – yet his fuel tank was virtually running on empty much of the time, as a result of the disordered eating he was secretly battling. He’d go for days without meals, or make himself sick when he did eat.
Jackson – who recently hosted the Qube Awards, a ceremony run by leading training provider Qube Learning (qube-learning.co.uk) to celebrate the merits of apprentices and trainees who’ve overcome challenges to succeed and feel proud of themselves – still holds the world record for the 60m hurdles, and his 1993 record for the 110m hurdles (12.91 seconds) stood unbeaten for almost 13 years.
Here, the athlete-turned-BBC-pundit talks about his eating disorder, and shares his advice for others going through similar experiences…
Can you tell us more about the eating disorder you experienced?
“I suffered with bulimia and anorexia when I was training for the Olympics – I felt like I was overweight and eating too much. I had a job to do – and it was to run as fast as I could and I convinced myself that I had to be lighter to do it.
“Most days, I was on 800-900 calories and training flat out, I would drink a coffee but go for days without a meal. I wanted to be the best, and being lighter was what I thought was the way to be that.”
What did you think about your appearance then?
“It was all done for tactical reasons. I wanted to weigh less, so I’d be sick or eat a lot less than what’s required to sustain a normal healthy body. My appearance didn’t come into it, I never thought about it, it was more from a functional aspect. I do look back on photos now and see how small I was.”
Do you think you would have been a better athlete (if that’s possible!) if you didn’t have an eating disorder?
“If I’d not had an eating disorder, I would have had a lot more energy and trained a lot better. I was fatigued and couldn’t see past what I felt was the right thing to do at the time. On reflection, I would have been an overall better athlete and a lot happier with myself if I hadn’t suffered with bulimia and anorexia.”
How did you eventually overcome your eating disorder?
“I’m free from having an eating disorder – as soon as I retired, there wasn’t the burning necessity to change to compete. I found it easy to stop there and then, it lifted a pressure from me that perhaps I hadn’t noticed before. It’s a hard thing to look in on when you’re in that situation yourself.”
What advice would you give to other people who have, or are showing signs of having an eating disorder?
“My advice would be to stop and ask yourself: ‘Is this good for me, am I healthy?’ It’s easy to say this now I’m out the other end, but I do encourage people who suffer with an eating disorder to stop, don’t do it, don’t criticise your appearance, love yourself, be confident and believe in your abilities. And ask for help, don’t feel alone, reach out to people close to you.”
How do you feel about yourself and your achievements now – did you ever struggle with self-doubt?
“I never doubted my ability. I was confident and overcoming barriers was never difficult – as long as I was truly self-motivated and stayed committed, I knew I could do it. I’m an advocate of challenging oneself and this is the big message Qube Learning presents and helps many individuals with: Don’t give up, it’s never too late to learn, believe in yourself and see how life-changing it can be. You can do it.
“Coming from a place where it once made sense to discipline myself in a bad and less constructive way, I wish I’d had someone say to me: ‘You’re OK as you are’. Though the journey to where I am now had its hurdles (!). I’m proud of myself and what I’ve achieved.”
For more information about Qube Learning, see qube-learning.co.uk
Information and support around eating disorders can be found through UK eating disorder charity, Beat. See beateatingdisorders.org.uk.