By Mike Rowbottom

Britain's victorious four at the London 2012 Games, with Tom James third right ©Getty ImagesMarch 12 - Health screening to check risks among rowers of potentially fatal heart problems is being introduced throughout international rowing by the World Rowing Federation (FISA).

The system is based on the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) Pre-Competition Health Screening, which follows on from the finding that the leading cause - more than 90 per cent - of non-traumatic sudden death in athletes is related to pre-existing heart problems.

The latest plans have been made in the wake of several high-profile instances where top class rowers have been affected by heart problems.

Greg Searle, who won gold in the coxed pair for Britain at the 1992 Olympics and returned at the age of 40 to take bronze in the eight at London 2012, discovered last year that he had a heart condition when he went to complete a triathlon in Italy, where screening is compulsory.

The results showed that he had atrial fibrillation, a condition that also affected British Olympic champion Tom James while he was training for London 2012. 

James, who announced his international retirement last year, managed the condition sufficiently well to win a second Olympic gold in the four which defended its Beijing title.

Both Searle's father and uncle have the same heart problem and Searle has been prescribed Warfarin, a blood thinner.

If Searle had not been screened the consequence could have been a stroke.

Greg Searle, Britain's Olympic rowing medallist, discovered a heart condition after undergoing mandatory screening last year when he travelled to Italy to compete in a triathlon ©Getty ImagesGreg Searle, Britain's Olympic rowing medallist, discovered a heart condition after undergoing mandatory screening last year when he travelled to Italy to compete in a triathlon
©Getty Images

In 2009, Searle's 25-year-old Molesey clubmate Scott Rennie, who was on the fringe of selection for Britain ahead of London 2012, collapsed and died while training on a rowing machine at the club.

It was found he died of a previously undiagnosed heart condition.

Recently, 2012 Olympic champion Nathan Cohen of New Zealand discovered he had supraventricular tachycardia (SVT).

This is when the rhythm of the heart suddenly changes.

"It can impact on rowing performance and make patients uncomfortable but by itself it is not life-threatening," says FISA Sports Medicine Commission member Dr Juergen Steinacker, who specialises in cardiology.

For Cohen, who was 27 when the condition occurred, it meant not competing at the 2013 World Rowing Championships.

IOC Medical and Scientific Director Richard Budgett, a 1984 Olympic gold medallist rower alongside Sir Steve Redgrave in the British coxed four, praised FISA's stand stating: "The IOC published a consensus statement on Periodic Health Examination in 2009 as part of its strong commitment to protect the health of athletes.

"The introduction by FISA of mandatory pre-competition health screening is an excellent initiative that puts into practice the principles of the consensus statement.

"The new bye-law promotes good medical practice throughout the sport of rowing and thus is a significant step forward in the protection of athletes' health."

FISA is introducing its pre-competition health screening process in stages.

This screening process has been designed by experts to identify as accurately as possible athletes that may be at risk of heart problems and advise them accordingly.

This year, screening will apply for all rowers competing in the 2014 World Rowing Junior Championships.

In 2015, screening will apply to all rowers competing in the Junior, Under-23 and Senior World Championships.

For all other events including masters, coastal, indoor and touring, screening of rowers is strongly recommended.

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December 2013: Heart problems force London 2012 Olympic champion Cohen to retire from rowing at age of 27