University of Edinburgh: Experts take long view to aid Olympians’ health

Researchers who specialise in high performance sport want to build a clearer picture of the key health challenges Olympians face while competing – and in retirement.

They hope their findings will inform targeted injury and illness prevention programmes and other wellbeing initiatives that will benefit athlete’s health now and in the future.

The International Olympic Committee is funding the project, which involves specialists in sports medicine, orthopaedics, epidemiology, psychology and public health.

Competitive careers
Researchers are recruiting a cohort of Olympians who competed at Tokyo 2020 or this year’s Winter Games in Beijing so they can monitor the athletes’ health over their competitive careers.

With Paris 2024 and Milano Cortina 2026 just around the corner, it is anticipated that future Olympians will also be invited to join.

The cohort will be tracked for 15 to 20 years, allowing the study team to survey the athletes’ musculoskeletal and general health and wellbeing at regular time-points. Surveys will be available in nine languages.

Researchers will also be able to keep a close eye on any new and emerging medical trends that arise in high performance sport during the study period.

Targeted interventions
This information will be used to inform evidence-based, targeted interventions to help mitigate some of the physical and mental challenges associated with elite sport participation.

Lead researcher Debbie Palmer says previous studies of Olympic athletes’ injury and illness have all focused on activity during the Games themselves.

The research, although valuable, has been restricted to data captured during three weeks, once every four years.

Dr Palmer says that longer-term health impact studies focused on retired athletes have also been limited because of their retrospective nature.

Knowledge gaps
The restraints associated with both these approaches mean there are significant gaps in experts’ understanding. The IOC Olympian Health Cohort study aims to bridge that knowledge gap.

One key question, for instance, is what happens to athletes between those injuries recorded at Olympic Games and data gathered when athletes retire.

“We need to observe athletes throughout their competitive careers to ascertain a more comprehensive understanding of the challenges they face in and out of sporting competition,” says Dr Palmer.

“That way this project will inform better prevention initiatives to benefit the short and long-term health of the athletes.”