The Olympic & Amateur Sports Hub

Do Olympic athletes have too much say about health?

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Injured

What happens when the goal of long-term safety collides with the once every four years Olympic moment?

Recently, Lindsey Vonn continued to ski with a torn knee ligament in her attempt to return to the Olympics. In the end, she made the right decision to stop her impossible task to compete without a functioning anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). The question is, if she didn’t come to that correct conclusion and wanted to compete in the Olympics, would anyone have stopped her? Vonn Crutches

Athletes tend to push the limits and often coaches, managers, agents, family members and sponsors are not inclined to stop them. Their fortunes are aligned with the athlete’s Olympic success. They mean no harm but are they swept up in the moment?

The documentary “Shaun White: Russia Calling,” gives us a peek into this world. White falls in the first run of the final U.S. Olympic slopestyle trials, where he needs to win to qualify.  After the fall, this sequence is shown.

While receiving treatment, his team manager asks: “How you feeling?”

White: “I don’t know. So beat up.”

Team manager: “Shoulder killing you? “

White: “(unintelligible) Dizzy.”

Team manager: “Are you?”

White: “Stupid man. So stupid.” (Cut away)

Coach: “He’s got to ride pretty soon, and we have to be out of here in twenty minutes.”

Team manager: “You know the slope road wasn’t going to be an easy one.”

White “No, I know.  I just didn’t see the slam coming. Uhh, rocked me.” (Cut away) “How am I gonna do this?”

Russia Calling

(Cut away) “I don’t really feel like it’s an option to pull out now. I have to go back up. I have to make this happen. This isn’t something I can just walk away from. I have to win, I have to do well and really lay it on the line and try to qualify for the Olympics.”

White takes his second run and goes on to win and qualify for the U.S. Olympic slopestyle team.

The following day he qualifies in pipe.

This is edited footage, and we don’t know what – if any injury – occurred, or what treatment he received. Regardless, the pressure of the Olympic moment is evident, even in the qualifying process.

In individual Olympic sports, who is responsible for protecting the athletes? Is it up to the athletes themselves or someone else?

Let’s take a look at how the Olympics deal with concussions as an example of how an athlete’s health is handled.

Olympics sports medicine is primarily handled by the country that sends the athlete.  There is no overriding Olympic policy. Each country, the national governing body of the sport and individual athlete make the decisions. There is no uniform international concussion protocol for the Olympics.

Team sports leagues like the NFL have well-developed concussion protocols. When the event is once every four years and is considered once in a lifetime, the dynamics change.

The dynamics for yearly events like the X Games are also different. When the entire competition is only four days long, there is no time to recover from a concussion when the minimal recovery time is often one week or longer.

While I was the chief medical officer of the X Games, we adopted the American Academy of Neurology concussion guidelines.  Even though we had the best of intentions to protect competitors, no athlete wanted to be examined for concussion and risk being ruled out after a fall. The X Games medical staff would insist on evaluation but a big part of concussion diagnosis is honest reporting of symptoms by athletes.

Without an Olympics concussion protocol, the scene above may be repeated. The Olympics have a strict and well-developed performance enhancing drug policy, but no concussion policy. Maybe it’s time for a complete athlete health policy.

As Shaun White concluded in his documentary: “It’s been a crazy road. And it’s honestly been the hardest challenge I have every faced in my life. You get really upset and fall and hurt myself. Then you get it. You land the trick or you win the competition and it’s all worth it at that point.”

Athletes clearly feel the risk is worth the reward. The question is:  should the Olympics continue to let individuals take the chance or institute health policies?

Photo Source: Women’s Wear Daily, MassiveMoves.comL.A. Times

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Dr. David Chao

Dr. David Chao is an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist practicing in San Diego. He spent 17 years as chief medical officer of ESPN's Winter and Summer X Games and also has covered other Olympic events and sports. In addition he served as team physician for the NFL San Diego Chargers for 17 years.

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