Olympians often link their current pain to past sporting injuries and high-performance training practices and techniques. Prior to the World Olympians Association (WOA) Olympians Health Study there had been limited credible research into the long-term health of retired elite athletes and no global studies.
From personal experience, and those of my Olympian friends and colleagues, I know that prioritising health, in particular long-term health, is an important issue. Many of us around the world feel passionately about seeing meaningful changes so that there is improved protection and support for long-term health, as this impacts us all.
Throughout my career, I was fortunate to not suffer serious injury due to my training practices. I ran outdoors on soft surfaces, rarely on the track and never on the road. This was a conscious decision which meant I could train consistently without impact or delay from injury.
However, I know the issues many of my fellow Olympians had to face and still face today. I am determined to ensure they have a better life and that we create evidence-based best practice to help future generations of Olympians avoid injuries and recover more effectively.
To achieve this we need a commitment to greater alignment within the global sports community - including between International Federations, National Olympic Committees and governments - to improve the lives of Olympians and elite athletes today and for future generations.
Willie Banks OLY is a two-time Olympian, former world record holder and the inventor of the much-loved overhead hand clap. Today, Willie has osteoarthritis in his knees and hip, is in constant pain and attributes his current condition to past sporting injuries. Willie has had a great life thanks to sport and would do it all again, but he hopes that the advancement of sports science will lead to fewer injuries and faster, more complete rehabilitation. Willie, myself and thousands of others from the Olympian community also hope that sports teams, sponsors and Governments will invest more heavily in their athletes’ long-game.
Inspired by Willie’s story and the welcome speech of HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco OLY at the Opening Ceremony of the 127th IOC Session in 2014, we formed the WOA Medical Committee to help drive a strategy focused on improving Olympians’ long-term physical and mental health. Former IOC Medical Director Dr Patrick Schamasch, current IOC Medical Director, Dr Richard Budgett OLY, President of the International Federation of Sports Medicine, Prof Fabio Pigozzi, and WOA Board Member Dr Malav Shroff OLY, enthusiastically joined the project along with further renowned figures and their support has been instrumental.
With support from an IOC Scientific and Medical Commission grant, the WOA Olympians Health Study was launched in 2017 as the first-ever global study into the long-term health of Olympians. Due to her strong medical research background, three-time Olympian Debbie Palmer OLY was commissioned as lead researcher of an international, multidisciplinary research team and the initial findings have uncovered ground-breaking new learnings.
Highlighted recently in the first of a series of papers published in the industry-leading British Journal of Sports Medicine, the findings have confirmed our lived experience. They have the potential to underpin future research and policy decisions and drastically improve the lives of Olympians and elite athletes.
The strong uptake of 3,357 Olympians, representing 57 sports from 131 countries, taking part in the initial survey has delivered an unrivalled data set and a credible global sample size. WOA, our Medical Committee and our commissioned research group now have strong data which will lead to further analysis, evidence-based findings and publications over the next couple of years.
We are now in a position to welcome serious discussion with both influencers and change-makers in and around the world of sport on the physical and mental wellbeing of Olympians and elite athletes, to recommend and action policy decisions and improved funding that will positively impact their lives moving forward.
We wish to explore the wide implementation of new and existing measures including long-term, athlete-specific health insurance and greater access to ongoing care beyond retirement through the existing high-performance structures or specialist rehabilitation centres.
Closer consideration should be placed to the risk of injury occurring in training, as this is an environment we can control to a greater extent, in addition to the risk of injury during competition. Additionally, severe injuries and the locations which present current residual symptoms, particularly the knee, lumbar spine and shoulder, should be more closely investigated.
The long-term health of Olympians and elite athletes is crucial to ensuring the positive impact of sport in our communities remains at a high level. We have triggered interest and discussion by commissioning the research, now we are asking for a firm commitment of money, time and resources from all stakeholders in sport so that we can improve the health of Olympians and elite athletes and further enhance the benefits of sport.