Do Olympic Athletes Risk Permanent Injury?

Those of us joining the more than 3 billion people around the world in Olympics watching, may find one part of the experience uncomfortable and even withering – the sight of healthy men and women and boys and girls risking life and limb for a laurel wreath. There was German weightlifter, Matthias Steiner, dropping a 432-pound barbell on his neck;. South Korean weightlifter Jaehyouk Sa, dislocating his right elbow while trying to push his lifts up to 357 lbs; and American sprinter, Manteo Mitchell, running 200m in the 4×400-meter relay preliminaries with a broken leg.

Now, the experts have stepped up to calm the concerns of the audience. It is a time of extremes, but scientific evidence suggests no-one will push beyond the limit. “You’ll never die because of intensity of exercise,” said Gregoire Millet, director of the Sport Science Institute at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. “You will never die because you push yourself so hard.”

Enter The Governor

Research, much of it led by Tim Noakes, a professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, suggests that however much some athletes may want to push beyond all previous performances, a switch in the brain – known as the “central governor” – will keep them safe. “The brain uses the symptoms of fatigue as key regulators to ensure that the exercise is completed before harm develops,” Noakes wrote in a recent paper in the journal Frontiers In Physiology. For Richard Budgett, chief medical officer at the London 2012 Games, having the “central governor” around is a good thing. Himself a former Olympic gold-medal winning rower, Budgett is also eager to point out that many myths about potentially negative health effects of many years of hard exercise are generally not borne out by the scientific evidence. Studies in weightlifters, for example – who many might suspect would suffer lower back pain and damage as they get older – show that these athletes actually have less back pain in later life than other people. A scientific paper published in 1997 on the health status of former elite athletes from Finland found those who focused on aerobic sports in particular had long, healthy life expectancy and low risk of heart disease and diabetes in later years.

What About Accidents?

Of course, what the mavens aren’t addressing are the accidents along the way to Olympic glory: In March of 2010, Courtney King-Dye, 33, an Olympic dressage rider heading to Beijing, fell on her head, suffering a traumatic brain injury. She was in a coma for a month. Four years later, King-Dye says, “I’m still a definite fall risk, can’t walk without my cane, can’t brush my hair or teeth or eat with Righty (her right hand) and now I talk like a 5 year old instead of a 3 year old.”  And weightlifter, Jaehyouk Sa’s career may be cut short by his injury.

Take it to the Limit

There has been some scholarship recently about what the human body can bear as we see athletes routinely break records because they are fitter, stronger and faster. A recent article in the New Yorker used the spectacle of the World’s Strongest Man competition to opine on whether the athletic arms race has gone too far.

As an example, Brian Shaw, one of the sport’s superstars has deadlifted more than a thousand pounds; pressed a nearly quarter-ton log above his head; harnessed himself to fire engines, Mack trucks, and a Lockheed C-130 transport plane and dragged them hundreds of yards. To be fair, this is hardly comparable to the Olympics since these competitions don’t regulate drug and steroid use and so put their athletes at much greater risk. In 1977, one of the leaders in the early rounds was Franco Columbu, a former Mr. Olympia from Sardinia who weighed only a hundred and eighty-two pounds. Columbu might have gone on to win, had the next event not been the Refrigerator Race. This involved strapping a four-hundred-pound appliance, weighted with lead shot, onto your back and scuttling across a parking lot. Within a few yards, Columbu’s left leg crumpled beneath him. All the ligaments were torn, and the calf muscle,the hamstring, and the front patella sustained enormous damage. The injury required seven hours of surgery and threatened to cripple Columbu for life (he later settled a lawsuit against the World’s Strongest Man for eight hundred thousand dollars.)

In the end, we need safety more than we need glory and we commend the legions of regulatory bodies and coaches who take the safety of their athletes seriously.

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