The important thing in life is not the victory but the contest; the essential thing is not to have won but to have fought well. [Speech in London, 1908] Baron Pierre de Coubertin, French founder of the International Olympic Committee (1863–1937)
Injury is part of sport. Sport injuries are an accepted part of playing sport, however, they are unwanted. But when we think about sport injuries and their cost to peoples’ lives, the findings might shock us, especially those playing at the highest level in elite sport. Most sports, but mostly elite sport participants, place their bodies under high competition loads with years of physiological training that place stresses on their bodies and minds. Most athletes accept the cost of acute and overuse musculoskeletal injury because it is an accepted part of their sports, with some sports racking up a ledger of injuries that make us wince and look away.
Sport organisations across the world hold sport injury prevention as a chief mandate because the health and well-being of the athlete is at stake. Thousands of studies record the seasonal injury patterns across various sports, but few studies reveal the injury and health patterns across an athlete’s career. Being fit for one’s health and being fit for sport are two different constructs. While one elite athlete might report better health later in life compared with the standard population, this health often comes with expenses such as ongoing pain, musculoskeletal dysfunction, and osteoarthritis.
Palmer and colleagues examined the aetiology of injuries faced by elite athletes across their athletic career to understand the prevalence and nature of Olympic career-related injuries, general health status and any residual symptoms from injuries. The researchers gathered data from 3357 retired Olympics from 131 countries using an online survey. The researchers captured Olympic sport exposure, significant training, and competition injury, general health (e.g., depression) and current musculoskeletal pain and limitations to one’s functions.
This extensive data set represented 57 sports from Winter and Summer Olympics, with athletes ranging in age from 16 to 97 years. The researchers reported 3746 injuries from 2116 Olympians. The injury prevalence ranged from 82.2% in handball to 40% in shooting in the Summer Olympics. In the Winter Olympics, the highest reported injuries were in alpine skiing (82.4%) and lowest in biathlon (40%).
The knee ranked highest for most injuries, with 120 days of severity associated with this injury. Next came the lumbar spine with 100 days of severity and shoulder clavicle at 92 days of severity. One element often forgotten in research studies of this intent is the emotional experiences of athletes. 6.6% of Olympians reported experiencing depressing during their career. Of this sample of Olympians, 32.4% reported current pain and 35.9% reported functional limitations.
What is this research telling us? 66% of Olympians reported at least one significant career injury. But perhaps what is most significant is that while athletes injured the knee, lumbar spine, and shoulder/clavicle most commonly, one third of these Olympians were still experiencing pain now from their Olympic-career injury. Every organisation and athlete wants to lessen their risk of injury, but no athlete wants to live a life with the pain and inconvenience of an injury from an Olympic career. Knowing what we know now will help athletes and organisations prepare for injury prevention where possible and support athletes to a better life after their Olympic career.
Palmer D, Cooper DJ, Emery C, et al. (2021). Self-reported sports injuries and later-life health status in 3357 retired Olympians from 131 countries: a cross-sectional survey among those competing in the games between London 1948 and PyeongChang 2018. British Journal of Sports Medicine 55:46-53.
The important thing in life is not the victory but the contest; the essential thing is not to have won but to have fought well. [Speech in London, 1908] Baron Pierre de Coubertin, French founder of the International Olympic Committee (1863–1937). See Owen, James; Times Books. The Times Great Quotations: Famous quotes to inform, motivate and inspire . HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.
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