Injury and illness surveillance of Olympic athletes

Alpine skiiers Heidi Kloser, 21, (US); Rok Perko, 28, (Slovenia); Brice Roger, 23, (France); and Maggie Voisin, 15, (US), are some of the athletes whose dreams of an Olympic medal have come to an end. All suffered serious injuries during training or qualifying runs, which will prevent them from competing for medals. Kloser, Perko, Roger, and Voisin have something else in common. Their injuries are now part of the 2014 Olympic’s official injury and illness surveillance system.

The International Olympic Committee initially established the system for the 2004 summer games in Athens. It was limited to athletes participating in team sports, and expanded to all sports for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. For the winter games, the surveillance system was first put in place during the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Data from those games was presented by an international team of researchers in a 2010 article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. It may foretell what may happen at the Olympics in Sochi.

The surveillance system relies on the head physicians for each countries’ National Olympic Committees to submit a report each day which lists any new injury and illness cases. At the Vancouver games, two medical clinics were set up outside the Olympic village and health care providers from those facilities also participated.

An injury was defined as an event in which the athlete had to suspend training or competition for a newly-acquired musculoskeletal injury or concussion, or reinjury. Among the 2,567 athletes, 11.2 percent suffered injuries reported to the surveillance system.

The sports with the highest rate of injuries were: snowboard cross, (35 per 1,000), bobsled (20 per 1,000), alpine freestyle cross (19 per 1,000) and alpine freestyle aerials (19 per 1,000). For female athletes, the sport with the highest rate of injuries was freestyle snowboard cross (73 per 1,000) and alpine freestyle aerials (26 per 1,000). Among the male athletes, the highest rate of injuries were for those participating in short-track speed skating (28 per 1,000), and bobsled (17 per 1,000).

Among all of the 287 injury cases reported, the most common involved the knee (13.7 percent) and head (10.5 percent).

Illness cases were defined as any physical complaint (other than an injury), or exacerbation of a pre-existing health condition, in which the athlete sought medical attention. There were 181 illnesses cases reported to the surveillance system, affecting 7.1 percent of the athletes. Sixty three percent involved conditions involving the respiratory system. The sports category with the highest percentage of athletes reporting illnesses was skating (i.e., hockey, short-track, figure, etc.) Of the 432 athletes participating in skating events, 11.6 percent suffered a reported illness.

Sadly, for some of us, one particular injury from the 2010 Vancouver Olympic games stands out.  Nodar David Kumaritashvili, 21, was the luger from Bakuriani, Georgia whose sled crashed during a training run. He was fatally injured.

The researchers fail to mention his name, and simply describe the incident this way:

“A catastrophic injury with death as outcome occurred in luge.”


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This is a great article! Although it shows a negative side to sports that many refuse to bring to light, it is something we cannot ignore. Sure the numbers may not seem extremely high, but the fact that injuries do occur show something must be done. Keeping track of how an injury takes place in a certain sport can better prepare that exact same sport to find possible solutions in terms of keeping athletes safe. The last thing you want to see is someone robbed of a moment they have worked their entire life through an injury. With keeping track of all injuries in the Olympics, both that sport and the Olympics committee can find ways to better prepare for these unfortunate situations.

By Thomas Booth (not verified) on 11 Feb 2014 #permalink

The converse of the injury discussion is the number of Olympic athletes who have "miraculous" recoveries from injuries and do well at the Games after poor performances in the weeks prior. In the current Olympics, there is a Russian figure skater who has assiduously avoided competition for 4 years (no dope testing), performed poorly at his nationals a month ago, was selected for the Olympics by an ad hoc committee (no dope testing), and has double-digit major orthopedic surgeries since Vancouver.
There is almost always someone on the cross country teams who gets excluded for doping, but one has to wonder at the less traditionally dope-infested sports and what role drug enhancements have a role in performance, especially when there are "miraculous recoveries" just in time for an Olympic appearance.
Are these miracles provided courtesy of steroids?

By Too Old for This (not verified) on 11 Feb 2014 #permalink

As an athletic training student, I never want to see an athlete get injured, but I can say that no matter how much you prepare, strengthen, and prevent, injuries will happen. Especially at the elite level. The amount of wear and and tear these athletes put their bodies through is unreal. And just take into consideration the nature of sports- they are highly competitive and are generally very physically demanding. That being said, if someone was to make it through an Olympic career with no injuries, it would be incredible. As for the high injury rate among skiers, its not surprising to me, these people are racing downhill at great speeds and taking jumps where they fly into the air and slam back down onto the ground just to do it all over again in a few moments. Also I've read that several of the skiing and snowboarding courses in Sochi were poorly constructed resulting in injury and athletes withdrawing from the competition. Shawn White withdrew from the slopestyle event, a downhill ski course generated speeds of over 90 mph, and the halfpipe had to be remade, so I think poor course design can play a large role in the rate of injury. Yes, looking at these Olympic Injury Surveillance numbers is sad because you never want to see anyone lose a dream, and you hope that it may help prevent future injury, but you also have to take into consideration the nature of the sport and that there is always the risk of injury.

Sports injuries will always be a part of any competition. I found it interesting that many of the injuries involved knees. I personally tore my ACL playing basketball in High School. My physical therapist explained to me that women have a higher risk of knee injury than men because of the angle that the femur is attached to the hip in women, its put more tension on the ligaments holding the knee together. It makes me wonder if there is a higher percentage of knee injuries in women in the Olympics than in men.

What a great blog post. In my opinion, it is very important that injuries are documented to help prevent them from happening again. I am an Athletic Training student and I am surprised to see that this was only started in 2010. These clinics set up in the Olympic village give amazing job opportunity and experience for people of my profession. It does not surprise me that the top injuries involve the knee and head because of the extreme physical stress these athletes put on their bodies. This surveillance system will hopefully benefit the athletes and raise prevention to the olympic committee to better the courses or to generally improve the olympic experience for all athletes.

As we all know, the Olympics are a big deal for the world. There are people all across the world that train their entire life for their one shot at the Olympics. Many of the athletes do not take care of themselves and their injuries the way that they are supposed to, which leads to even more injuries. A lot of the times, the most serious injuries that people face are during the Olympics. They are a very competitive game and they bring out the best and the worst in people. Athletes need to understand that they need to be doing all that they can in order to not injure themselves. They need to be taught injury prevention and do all the things that they are supposed to do in order to be safe during the sport that they are competing in. If there are two things that keep coming up in injuries, then athletes need to be more cautious about those areas, and be taught how to prevent injury to those specific areas. Because the knee and the head are two of the top injuries during the games, athletes should be taking precautions to preventing injury to these areas. It is not all about winning, it is also about staying safe and the athletes being able to compete doing what they love. Keeping track of what injuries occur and the illnesses that effect the teams during the games is a good step towards prevention of the issues so that something like Nodar's death can be avoided. It is especially sad in his case, because the pole that caused the death was wrongfully placed in the first place, and later moved. If there were people that were thinking more about safety at the building time, then the death may have been able to be prevented.

By Ellen Davis (not verified) on 11 Feb 2014 #permalink

I would like to know the statistics of reinjuries compared to new injuries. In all sports reinjuries are more common than a new injury occuring. The Olympic athletes are training harder than any other athletes, and they do have a bigger possibility of new injuries due to over training. As Too Old for This said, Olympic athletes do heal very quickly sometimes. However this is not due to steroids. The speedy healing Olympic athletes experience is due to blood-spinning. This is a medical procedure in which small samples of the athlete's blood are taken and spun in a centrifuge, allowing platelets and blood plasma to be isolated from other blood components. This blood sample has natural growth factors and can be injected into the athlete's injury site. That can reduce pain and speed up healing. Blood -spinning is legal, but very controversial.

This is a very good article. It is quite informative what is happening beyond the television screen. It is a given that athletes will fall under an illness or injury at some point in their training, but it can be easily overlooked with the excitement of the games underway. More often, the public is very unaware of the injuries that take place, so it is intriguing to find statistics behind the danger these sports provide to the athletes. Hopefully with an accurate amount of information, new terms of safety can be found to ensure a better chance that the athlete may avoid such an unfortunate event such as injury. This information can also pin point the most problematic sporting events for either gender category. This is an overall helpful article. It is sad to hear of the injuries that appear throughout this rigorous training, but things do happen when pushing the human body to the limit. That being said, using these statistics could potentially be used to better the events safety wise, as well as better the Olympics as a whole.

This is a great article. I'm an athletic training student and I believe the general population having access to this injury surveillance survey is a great way to inform others on different sports related injuries. As JK mentioned earlier, I believe this survey allows for sports to take old injuries and learn from them. This survey allows for new techniques to be developed. Such as speed skating, if there are a high rate of ankle injuries, new taping or strengthening techniques may be developed to avoid injury in the future. As an athletic trainer this also allows for great references if I encounter a similar injury with my athletes, granting me a mechanism of injury, rehab times, and other complications to base my rehab off of.

As has been pointed out, the sport is inherently risky and no amount of engineering will ever make it totally safe. That said, a vast amount has been done to make it safer-better equipment being one of the primary methods. One example is boot design. When I first worked as a ski patrolman in the 60's, one of the most common injuries was a boot top fracture. This has been eliminated almost entirely by ski boot re-design. When I look back at my first ski equipment, then look at what I use now, progress has been made and surveillance of injuries can only help continue the improvement.

By Katherine Kirkland (not verified) on 12 Feb 2014 #permalink

This article is very interesting. The Olympics is a huge deal to everyone in the world. It is the only time where everyone comes together. Athletes from all over the world have been training their entire lives to participate in the Olympics. In the Olympics as in any other sporting event there are going to be injuries. Athletes training for the Olympics will take their bodies to the breaking point. It is extremely sad to see someone train so hard and make it to the Olympics but then injury themselves or die in a training run. This is why I think the surveillance system is a good idea. It is hard to see the percentage of athletes that made it to the Olympics but got servilely injured and could not participate for the medals. Many of those athletes will never be able to recover well enough to compete again. Hopefully the surveillance system can help and prevent future injuries.

This blog post was very interesting to read. As a former athlete, I know what it is like to have an injury. As an athlete, it just comes with the territory. I think the surveillance system is a very good idea. However, it could be even better! I think that all athletes competing in Olympic trials to get to the Olympics should also be under surveillance. These are some of the hardest working athletes and they are pushing their bodies so far (sometimes too far). I found it interesting to find out the most common types of injuries were to the knee and to the head. While I found it interesting, I wasn't really surprised (especially with the knee). The knee is a very vital part of almost every sport , and I feel it gets the most overworked! Having had a knee injury myself, I know just how painful they can be! I can't imagine being so close to my dream, and having it taken away because of an injury. I hope that this surveillance system can help athletes with their current and future injuries! But most of all, I hope they don't ever lose sight of their dreams.

By Alanah Calvert (not verified) on 12 Feb 2014 #permalink

Being a competitive rifle and pistol shooter, it is good to see no recorded injuries from firearms competition (biathalon in the Winter Olympics).

By Joselito Ignacio (not verified) on 21 Feb 2014 #permalink