Athletes spend years working to get into the Olympics. And on their way there, they often get hurt.
“I would say the majority of them have had some kind of injury,” said Dr. Lee Schofield, who is currently in Rio as part of the Canadian Olympic core medical team.
Dr. Julia Alleyne, a former chief medical director for the Canadian team in several Olympics, agrees.
“The most injuries often happen as you’re gaining skill,” she said. “It’s the same as learning to ride a bicycle. When you’re first gaining skill you have to really try and master a lot of different pieces of information at once. So you’re mastering muscle memory, you’re mastering cognitive sequencing, often you’re trying to manage speed, resistance, accuracy, all at the same time.”
And sometimes, that leads to injury.
But elite competition isn’t risk-free either. Organizers at the Pan Am Games in Toronto in 2015 classified the sports’ relative risks based on a few factors, said Alleyne.
“Your high risk sports are those that have contact, speed and height.”
Keeping that in mind, here’s what doctors have to say about common injuries in some Olympic sports:
Swimmers tend not to have acute injuries, said Alleyne, instead they get overuse-related problems. But swimming carries a different risk too: “Swimmers have a higher incidence of respiratory problems,” she said. “It can be related to chlorine levels, changing in a pool they haven’t swam in before.”
Not only that, but infections spread easily in a water environment. “So they may be more prone to respiratory infections or even (gastro-intestinal) infections.”
“With the outdoor cycling events like BMX and mountain biking, certainly there are more risks because the terrain is rougher. So you have risks of falls off the bike, collisions with other riders or obstacles on the course,” said Schofield. Falls can mean road rash, head injuries and fractures.
Track cyclists have a more controlled course, but because they’re going at very high speeds, the consequences of a fall can be severe – leading to head and neck injuries or broken bones.
Rhythmic gymnastics is relatively low-risk, said Alleyne. And although trampoline athletes spend relatively little time on the trampoline, the consequences of a mistake can be severe because of the height involved.
Still, she thinks the most dangerous events are in artistic gymnastics: the uneven parallel bars and the vault.
“Our highest risk is going to be the uneven parallel bars for the women because that in fact has a risk of falling, and then there’s speed, and then you can get tangled up,” she said. “Vault is another high risk. Again, high speed, going over the horse, and there have been times where we have had internationally gymnasts who have had even severed spinal cords with vault.”
“Those are going to be high-risk for quick tendon injuries,” said Alleyne. “So that’s the hamstring pull, that’s the quadriceps pull, the calf or the ankle going over quickly, causing a calf pull.”
Long-distance runners are more likely to have overuse injuries or stress fractures, she said.
Doctors and veterinarians are both present at equestrian events, said Schofield, to take care of each of the athletes.
“With equestrian they can have overuse injuries, related to just the amount of riding they do, sitting on the horse. And then the day of the competition, they certainly have a high risk of injuries if they’re thrown off the horse, if they get caught on one of the obstacles they jump. That can vary from a bruise from falling to a head injury or broken bone if they fall or if the horse falls on them.”
Because basketball is a fast-paced game with lots of players on the court, it carries a risk for injury from collisions and other factors, said Alleyne. “There is pivoting, there’s quick movements, there can be slips. So any sport where you have movement, speed, changes in body position, will increase your risk.”
Boxing is one of the less-dangerous Olympic combat sports, thinks Alleyne. “The head does have a helmet on it, and they do wear mouthguards and the actual pace of the sport is not a high pace. You have two people in the ring at the same time, but you don’t have a moving playing field or multiple other players at the same time, or height.”
With that said, boxers do get lacerations and concussions. However, dislocations are not as common as in judo or taekwondo, she said.
Dealing with injury
A severe injury that prevents someone from competing is “devastating” for the athlete, said Alleyne.
“I’ve been in the position where I’ve had to break news to an athlete that the injury they’ve sustained means that they cannot compete,” she said.
“It’s always hard because you have to do it with empathy and at the same time you have to do it out of concern for their health and not the country’s medals, because you are treating them as your patient and you’re caring for them, not just for today but for their whole life.”
She leaves the final decision on whether to compete up to the athlete, but after a practice run, many decide to withdraw once they realize that they won’t be able to compete at their best.
“Do you want to participate in the Olympics not at your best and risking further damage?” she asks.
Still, it’s a decision that could mean giving up on your Olympic dream. “It may mean in a four-year cycle that they will no longer be in a position to be selected as an Olympian.”