Olympic Athletes Vulnerable to Everyday Health Risks

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Editor's note: This is the portion of a bid highlighting the 2021 Olympic Games with a circumstantial accent connected wellness and wellness.

July 16, 2021 -- On the tract of play, Olympic athletes look to beryllium superhuman -- stronger, faster, and fitter than the remainder of america -- and successful picture-perfect health. But disconnected the field, the world is not truthful simple.

Many of the world’s elite athletes woody with the aforesaid wellness problems arsenic the remainder of america -- from slump and anxiety, to eating disorders and cause abuse, to chronic conditions and infectious disease.

Olympic contention whitethorn adjacent summation the hazard for immoderate of these issues, with aggravated intelligence pressures and challenging carnal demands putting tremendous strains connected the minds and bodies of these singular competitors, experts say.

Now, with the Tokyo Olympic Games conscionable days away, COVID-19 corruption has joined the agelong database of imaginable wellness risks to the world’s apical athletes.

“Being an Olympic jock surely means you are mostly successful exceptional wellness and are astir apt tending to your wellness and well-being much than the mean person,” says Leana Wen, MD, a nationalist wellness argumentation prof astatine George Washington University. “That said, you could inactive precise good beryllium astatine hazard for infectious diseases, for cancers and, importantly, for mental health issues arsenic well. There are galore illnesses that tin impact everyone.”

Annie Sparrow, MD, a prof of colonisation health, science, and argumentation astatine the Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai, agrees, but notes that galore athletes look unsocial challenges arsenic well.

“The stress of competing astatine the highest level tin enactment tremendous strain connected the body; grooming restrictions and deficiency of enactment to intelligence well-being” are besides wellness hazard factors, she says.

Athletes Who’ve Opened Up

The database of athletes who’ve gone nationalist with their wellness struggles is agelong and growing. Take golden medalist Michael Phelps, the astir decorated Olympian successful history, for example. The pro swimmer revealed his mental wellness challenges successful The Weight of Gold, a caller HBO documentary. He says helium had suicidal thoughts adjacent astatine the highest of his swimming vocation and calls slump and termination among Olympic athletes an “epidemic.” Other Olympians who elaborate their ain struggles successful the movie see skier Bode Miller, velocity skater Apolo Anton Ohno, snowboarder Shaun White, hurdler Lolo Jones, and fig skater Sasha Cohen.

Just weeks earlier her Olympic debut successful Tokyo this month, Japanese tennis champion Naomi Osaka produced a moving first-person effort for Time mag astir her social anxiety, titled, “It’s O.K. Not to Be O.K.” She writes: “It has go evident to maine that virtually everyone either suffers from issues related to their intelligence wellness oregon knows idiosyncratic who does.”

And past there’s American marathoner Molly Seidel, who has been candid astir her eating disorder, precocious telling ESPN: “Instead of competing successful the Olympic trials successful the summertime of 2016 and signing a pro contract, I entered into a attraction programme for my eating disorder. That’s however horrible things had become.” U.S. swimmer Dara Torres, who won 12 Olympic medals implicit a 25-year career, and Canadian diver François Imbeau-Dulac have acknowledged facing akin issues.

Simone Biles, too,has not shied distant from discussing the trauma and PTSD she has, arsenic the lone U.S. gymnast inactive competing from the days erstwhile Larry Nassar, erstwhile squad doc for USA Gymnastics, sexually assaulted generations of girls.

Citing Biles’s courageousness and candor, Jessica Bartley, manager of intelligence wellness services for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, says: “We’re having to alteration the explanation of intelligence toughness.”

And intelligence wellness struggles aren’t the lone challenges Olympic athletes confront.

  • American way and tract sprinter Gabby Thomas -- whom the media has dubbed the world’s fastest epidemiologist due to the fact that she is moving toward a master’s grade successful epidemiology -- qualified for the Tokyo Games a period aft doctors recovered a benign liver tumor.
  • Tennis superstar Venus Williams was diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease, but it didn’t halt her from competing successful the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
  • Shannon Box played done the fatigue, associated pain, and musculus soreness caused by the inflammatory illness lupus. She helped the American women’s shot squad triumph Olympic medals successful 2004, 2008, and 2012. Today, she works with the Lupus Foundation of America to rise consciousness astir the condition.

These elite athletes are lone a sampling of Olympians who person turned their wellness struggles into inspiring nationalist consciousness campaigns, pursuing successful the footsteps of high-profile competitors similar Lance Armstrong (testicular cancer), Greg Louganis (HIV), and Peggy Fleming (breast cancer).

What is truthful compelling astir their stories is that they look truthful unlikely. But they besides underscore the information that nary 1 is immune from acute and chronic intelligence and carnal ailments.

For this reason, Wen suggests that high-profile athletes -- arsenic good arsenic others successful the nationalist oculus -- whitethorn person a greater interaction connected immoderate radical than adjacent their ain doctors.

“When they stock their stories of aboriginal diagnosis and treatment, it mightiness motivate others spell get screened and perchance prevention their lives,” says Wen, who is besides the erstwhile Baltimore wellness commissioner and a practicing exigency medicine doctor. “So galore radical look up to athletes and the athletes that are unfastened astir their ain wellness struggles, they are truly perchance redeeming and changing others’ lives.

“They are capable to scope radical who doctors whitethorn not beryllium capable to. There are a batch of people, for example, who don’t person a superior attraction physician, oregon adjacent if their doc tells them to spell for a [cancer screening], they mightiness not bash it. But if they spot that, wow, this has happened to an Olympic jock -- to [their] favourite athlete! -- they mightiness beryllium motivated to get that screening.”

Wen speaks not lone arsenic a doc and nationalist wellness specialist, but from idiosyncratic acquisition arsenic well.

"I truly applaud the courageousness of the athletes who person been unfastened astir sharing their stories,” she says. “And I accidental this not arsenic an Olympic jock but arsenic idiosyncratic who had cervical cancer successful my 20s. So, I consciousness powerfully astir sharing my ain travel and precise overmuch admit the stories being shared by others, including radical with large platforms similar galore Olympic athletes.”

What Can Olympians Teach Us About Health?

So, what bash these experiences archer america successful presumption of nationalist wellness lessons -- what tin the remainder of america larn from the challenges that elite Olympic athletes face?

For 1 thing, they spotlight the request to ticker retired for antithetic wellness signs and symptoms of perchance superior carnal and intelligence wellness conditions, experts say.

They besides spotlight the value of getting regular wellness checkups, taking preventive measures, and adopting healthy habits and lifestyles.

“We cognize the value of carnal exercise, bully nutrition and a balanced diet, harmless water, capable sleep, not smoking, constricted alcohol, etc.,” says Sparrow.

But, she notes, “knowing isn’t enough. It requires trust, which successful crook needs to beryllium earned, astatine a clip erstwhile determination is simply a wide distrust of authorities, a wealthiness of misinformation -- and the planetary shortage of spot shouldn’t beryllium a surprise. The champion vaccines and treatments won’t drawback connected without societal traction.”

Sparrow is peculiarly captious of the International Olympic Committee for not doing much to code the intelligence wellness issues spotlighted by Phelps, Osaka, and others, which she presumption a “big concern” that is getting abbreviated shrift.

“Mental wellness is simply a prerequisite to carnal health,” she says. “A blistery enactment arsenic the lone measurement successful spot by the IOC shows they bash not instrumentality it seriously.”

She argues that kid and younker athletes are astir susceptible to intelligence wellness issues and are besides much apt to deficiency enactment and representation.

“Footballers, tennis players, basketballers, person unions, [but] divers, swimmers, and gymnasts don’t,” she says.

Wen says Phelps, Osaka, and different Olympic athletes who are shining a airy connected psychiatric issues are doing a invaluable nationalist work that volition person an interaction that goes acold beyond the reaches of sports and the 2021 Tokyo Games.

“We, successful society, stigmatize intelligence health. We bash not spot intelligence wellness successful the aforesaid mode that we spot carnal health,” she says. “So, erstwhile Naomi Osaka oregon Michael Phelps oregon others talk astir their ain challenges with intelligence wellness oregon substance usage oregon thing other that’s related … it truly helps to destigmatize, region fearfulness and shame, and promote others to question treatment, too.”

Another Olympic Challenge: COVID-19

But nary 1 -- not adjacent the fittest Olympic jock -- is immune from COVID-19.

Both Wen and Sparrow are profoundly acrophobic astir COVID-19 risks during the games -- not conscionable to 11,000 Olympic competitors from much than 200 countries, but besides the 4,000 oregon truthful enactment unit who volition stitchery successful Tokyo.

This month, Sparrow co-authored an nonfiction published successful TheNew England Journal of Medicine urging the World Health Organization to "immediately convene an exigency committee" to counsel connected hazard absorption for the Olympics.

The article’s authors criticized a bid of COVID-19 “Playbooks” the IOC developed for the Tokyo games that telephone for mask-wearing, idiosyncratic hygiene practices, social distancing, regular testing, and different measures, specified arsenic having athletes question lone successful dedicated vehicles and devour successful definite locations.

“The Playbooks person been developed based connected science, benefiting from learnings gathered during the improvement of the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to a joint statement by the IOC and different Olympics and authorities officials.

The authors of the New England Journal of Medicine nonfiction argued those plans are “not informed by the champion technological evidence” and called for stricter measures, including much predominant investigating and tracking pre-symptomatic oregon asymptomatic cases.

“Although young, acceptable athletes are a low-risk group, investigating affirmative means being excluded from competition, arsenic the IOC hasn’t built successful flexibility oregon extended the duration to let to due investigating and isolation,” Sparrow says.

“But for Olympians, who person worked for this their full lives, the hazard of COVID-19 pales successful examination with the hazard of ne'er having [Olympics] aft their name. [And] we should support successful caput that athletes aren’t the ones astatine top hazard from COVID -- those astatine top hazard are the workers and officials and volunteers.”

She notes that the IOC says lone 84% of athletes and others surviving successful the Olympic Village volition beryllium vaccinated, which poses a important hazard -- peculiarly successful airy of new coronavirus variants that are easier to spread.

Wen says she was pleased to spot the determination to barroom spectators successful Tokyo but agrees that much could beryllium done to necessitate regular testing, indoor masking, and different measures.

“I privation that the athletes were capable to beryllium vaccinated successful beforehand of going, but of people that was not imaginable due to the fact that they’re coming from galore parts of the satellite wherever vaccines are not accessible,” she says. “But successful lieu of vaccination, determination are different procedures that tin trim the likelihood of coronavirus dispersed astatine the Olympics, including regular investigating and indoor masking.”

Raising Concerns, Awareness

Many Olympic athletes who’ve gone nationalist with their ain wellness struggles accidental they were motivated by a tendency to rise consciousness and marque wide that elite competitors aren’t invincible to the issues that we each woody with.

As Osaka notes successful her Time mag article, the determination to spell nationalist with specified a idiosyncratic communicative wasn’t easy.

But she says it’s important to get the connection retired that wellness problems tin onslaught anyone, including the world’s apical athletes.

“I consciousness uncomfortable being the spokesperson oregon look of jock intelligence health, arsenic it’s inactive truthful caller to maine and I don’t person each the answers,” she says. “I bash anticipation that radical tin subordinate and recognize it’s OK to not beryllium OK, and it’s OK to speech astir it. There are radical who tin help, and determination is usually airy astatine the extremity of immoderate tunnel.

“Michael Phelps told maine that by speaking up, I whitethorn person saved a life. If that’s true, past it was each worthy it.”

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