Our sick and injured olympians: who cares?

Being an olympian is a dangerous occupation. In the sixteen days of competition one in ten athletes will sustain an injury during the games. Of these injuries one in three will prevent the athlete from competing or continuing to compete. During the games we only hear of the spectacular injuries and so far in Rio, the sports with the most Golds injury-wise are cycling – both road and velodrome, gymnastics and weight lifting.

Apart from a focus on Zika and doping, little research has taken place about the health and safety of the Olympic community.

But the games are not yet over and if London is anything to go by, taekwondo will win the injury gold medal, closely followed by football, BMX, handball, mountain bike, athletics, weightlifting, hockey and badminton. Archers, canoe slalomers, sprinters, rowers, shooters and equestrians are relatively safe.

Does that tell us something about the summer sports or the athletes? Horrific photographs of dislocated elbows, fractured collar bones, legs and vertebrae amongst able bodied athletes should engender more than partisan disappointment at a lost opportunity.

Apart from a focus on Zika and doping, little research is available on the health and safety of the Olympic community and what needs to be done before, during and after to prevent or minimize the medical toll on our elite athletes.

It is time that the medical profession, not just the sports physicians who have competing interests, takes a more active role in determining safety and injury prevention in Olympic sports. There is a precedent in boxing.

And what of the competitors pushed beyond physical and mental endurance who suffer illnesses during the just over 2 weeks of intense close living and stress?

In addition to those injured, seven percent of all competitors will fall ill during the games, mostly with respiratory infections. Fortunately, antibiotics are accepted medications. Although women suffered 60% more illnesses than men, the rates for both sexes were higher than in the general population (86.0 for men vs 53.3 for women per 1000 athletes). The sickliest sports were athletics, beach volleyball, football, sailing, synchronized swimming and taekwondo. It is interesting that there are no reports of mental illness. We should expect at least a form of post-traumatic stress disorder given the extreme conditions in which the athletes train before the games.

The games are not over yet but the medal tally comes at a high cost. If this level of risk were extrapolated to the broader community, it would be seen as a public health priority. The time to act is now, whilst the games are still front page news. Guidance on maintaining physical and mental health should be in place before Tokyo.

One thought on “Our sick and injured olympians: who cares?

  1. These wise words, for our returning Olympians, remind me of one of my favourite Aphorisms attributed to Hippocrates; “In the case of athletes too good a condition of health is treacherous if it be an extreme state; for it cannot quietly stay as it is, and therefore, since it cannot change for the better, can only change for the worse. For this reason it is well to lose no time in putting an end to such a good condition of health, so that the body can start again to reconstitute itself.”


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