Olympic Athletes Compete with Injury

By: Dale J. Buchberger, PT, DC, CSCS, DACBSP

If you are like me you will or have been watching the XXX Olympic games from London, England. During the course of the games you may see athletes such as the Chinese 3-meter synchronized diving team wearing a special tape either on their leg or back to help them compete despite active injuries. The truth is, there are very few athletes competing in these Olympic games that are completely symptom free. Upwards of 95% of Olympic athletes are competing injured. If you see tape of any type on an athlete during the Olympic games it is there because of an injury not because it looks cool. Taped injuries are actually the small number of injuries that are readily identifiable. There are many injuries that taping either won’t help or may actually become a hindrance to performance. So how do these elite athletes win Olympic medals and set world records injured? The one word answer is “resources”.

The part that you don’t often see on Television is the effort of support staff and hours spent on treatment tables in order to get the athletes ready to compete with a variety of aches, pains and injuries. Members of the United States Olympic team are afforded any type of treatment that is approved by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) Medical Team consists of Medical Doctors (MD), Chiropractors (DC), Physical Therapists (PT), Athletic Trainers (ATC) and Massage Therapists (LMT). During the course of the Olympic games any particular athlete may see one or all of these providers on any given day in order to be as ready as they can be to compete in their particular events. The USOC medical staff is available to any US athlete 24-hours/7-days a week. It is not uncommon for Olympic healthcare providers to work on 3-4 hours of sleep per night because of the varied number of sports and events with a schedule that starts early in the morning and ends very late at night.

US Olympic athletes not only receive treatment for injuries but also receive preventive treatments that may consist of a variety of specific soft tissue treatments that range from Active Release Techniques (ART) to Instrument Assisted Soft Tissue Mobilization (IASTM). Some athlete’s soak in cold tubs of water set at 54-56 degrees Fahrenheit to help reduce inflammation from training and racing. The soft tissue treatments combined with selective use of the cold tubs allows for faster recovery especially when competing in multiple races such as happens in swimming or track. Some athletes such as Michael Phelps sleep in “altitude tents” utilizing the theory of “sleep high and train low”. Many athletes live at high altitude to generate more red blood cells to carry more oxygen and train at low altitude to increase the quality and intensity of their training. The portable altitude tent allows them to use this principle even at sea level.

Athletes in other countries have similar programs set up to prepare their athletes for the rigors of training and competing even when injured. For example the British Olympic movement has set up the United Kingdom athletics trackside and performance therapy team. I have had the pleasure of being a consultant for this organization regarding two of their athletes who suffered injuries in close proximity to the Olympic games. Together with members of the UK staff we put our heads together and devised a plan to get these two athletes ready for the games despite their untimely injuries. Both will compete in the second week of the games and as of this writing they where both ready to go. This is just an example of not just making use of physical resources but also intellectual resources around the globe. The British have put egos’ aside and have sought out any information regardless of source to get their athletes ready. This is the type of partnership that goes on in many countries in the years prior to the games.

Even with intense physical and mental resources not all athletes can be repaired enough to compete. One of the most notable withdrawals from the games is Britain’s Paula Radcliffe who was set to compete in the women’s Olympic marathon. The current women’s marathon world record holder suffers from severe osteoarthritis in her foot. She utilized the British medical system and even went to Germany for special treatment that has been popularized by several US professional athletes. Despite these efforts she will not be able to compete in the 2012 Olympics.

While you are watching these great athletes remember that many of them have dedicated years if not decades to preparation. If they cannot compete at this stage you know they are in considerable pain. If they are competing it is not pain free.