Probe: Body Composition Testing Harmed Colorado Runners

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An independent review of University of Colorado cross-country and track and field teams found evidence the school’s current practices surrounding body composition testing “negatively impacted a significant number of student-athletes.”

In an 82-page report provided to Runner's World, several members of the university’s medical and coaching staff, along with current and former athletes, told investigators they believed the testing and related nutrition advice exacerbated eating disorders and caused other harms, especially to athletes on the women’s team.

In addition, the documents note that the school previously took “specific personnel action” — details of which it said are to remain private — pertaining to its cross-country coaches and staff members based on reports of an “unhealthy” environment and culture., Cindy Kuzma of Runner's World reported. In addition, Colorado will enact new guidelines surrounding body composition testing.

Three coaches at the center of complaints raised by athletes remain in their positions. Longtime head coach Mark Wetmore will continue to lead CU’s cross-country and track programs, and associate head coach Heather Burroughs and registered dietitian Laura Anderson, associate athletic director for performance nutrition, also remain in their roles.

In the results summary and the report itself, school officials and investigators characterized the investigation as a “fact-finding review of the program and not a misconduct investigation,” according to Kuzma's report. As a result, CU athletic director Rick George noted, the inquiry team “made no specific efforts to corroborate any facts or individual statements provided by witnesses and did not establish whether statements, events or incidents even occurred.”

According to the report, Anderson brought sum-of-seven testing to CU when she joined the department, having previously used it on Olympic athletes and military personnel. The method involves using calipers to take pinch-like skinfold measurements on seven different parts of the body—including the thigh, abdomen, and on the chest between the nipple and armpit—and then calculating a score that represents an athlete’s muscle-to-fat ratio.

In the athletic department’s summary of the findings, officials announced that while sum-of-seven testing will resume at the university, they’ll enact enhanced policies to increase support for athletes.

The updated guidelines specify that, among other safeguards, athletes must meet with a team physician and mental health professional before opting into testing, and that any deemed high-risk won’t be permitted to opt in. Those who do undergo testing will undergo regular check-ins with mental health practitioners and physicians. Students from certain sports, including the men’s and women’s cross-country and women’s track and field programs, won’t be allowed to undergo testing in their first year post-high school. Coaches won’t have access to body composition, weight, or similar data, and an annual review of the testing program will be conducted by “academic and medical professionals with strong research backgrounds.”

To address these issues, the athletic department announced that in addition to the unspecified personnel action, athletes would now be able to anonymously report any concerns through a third-party tool. The new process will work together with existing campus resources—such as the Office of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution and campus legal—to ensure such complaints are addressed appropriately.

The athletic department has also created what it calls “internal communications expectation guidelines” that apply to coaching staff and athletes. These guidelines emphasize “three Rs”—respect, relationship, and reflection—that “should be incorporated into daily life.”

George's complete statement released Thursday reads:

We are grateful for the work of the inquiry team, the steering committee, and for the voluntary participation of the more than 60 CU cross country student-athletes, coaches, and staff dating back twenty-five years.

Our goal is to provide a positive, world-class student-athlete experience for every student who chooses CU Boulder, and it is clear in some instances we have fallen short of that goal, especially for some of our female student-athletes as it relates to body composition and culture. For that I apologize. The health and overall well-being of our student-athletes is my top priority and one student-athlete indicating they have had a bad experience is one too many. We will continue to work towards ensuring that our high standards are met for all.

The inquiry reveals that many current and former cross country student-athletes have had a positive experience at CU and does not reveal that any employee—including the current coaching staff—were found to have violated any university, Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance, or NCAA policies or rules. The general conclusions of this inquiry are also similar to an internal review that was conducted more than a year ago. As the inquiry team acknowledges in the report, it made no specific efforts to corroborate any facts or individual statements provided by witnesses and did not establish whether statements, events or incidents even occurred.

In response to our internal review, CU Boulder Athletics made several major policy changes dating back to last year and will now build on those changes by adding more guidelines to our body composition tests that are designed to further protect student-athletes. The guidelines include requiring student-athletes to meet with medical and mental health professionals prior to opting into the body composition program and not allowing student-athletes in sports susceptible to body dysmorphia to participate in body composition tests in their first year post-secondary. These new procedures are fully supported by our coaches, nutritionists, and medical team. We will also implement a new third-party anonymous reporting platform to allow student-athletes and staff to report concerns that will work in concert with pre-existing campus programs as well as our robust mental health resources, considered to be among the best in the nation.     

The cross country coaches and our nutrition staff understand the allegations and are committed to addressing the overarching concerns that have become evident throughout this inquiry process. The student-athletes, the coaches, and the nutrition staff have my full, unequivocal support and I realize that this process has been exceedingly difficult for everyone. It is also my responsibility to hold all of our coaches and staff accountable and I will work closely with our cross country coaching and support staff to ensure they live up to our departmental values, which prioritize the mental health and wellness of our student-athletes.

With the completion of this inquiry and the subsequent policy changes that have been immediately enacted, we look forward to a bright future for the program and our student-athletes.

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