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The Olympic Games is the largest sport event in the world. In Beijing, 10 500 athletes competed, selected from a large group of elite athletes in 204 countries. Sports participation on the elite level, aside from winning medals, fame and other rewards, is also important from a health perspective. There is no longer any doubt that regular physical activity reduces the risk of premature mortality in general, and of coronary heart disease, hypertension, colon cancer, obesity and diabetes mellitus in particular. The question is whether the health benefits of sports participation outweigh the risk of injury and long-term disability, especially in high-level athletes. Sarna et al1 have studied the incidence of chronic disease and life expectancy of former male world-class athletes from Finland in endurance sports, power sports and team sports. The overall life expectancy was longer in the high-level athlete compared with a reference group (75.6 vs 69.9 years). The same group also showed that the rate of hospitalisation later in life was lower for endurance sports and power sports compared with the reference group.2 This resulted from a lower rate of hospital care for heart disease, respiratory disease and cancer. However, the athletes were more likely to have been hospitalised for musculoskeletal disorders. Thus, the evidence suggests that although there is a general health benefit from sports participation, injuries represent a significant side effect.
One priority of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is to protect the health of the athlete. During recent years, prevention of injuries and illnesses has been high on the IOC agenda. During the Athens Games, an injury surveillance system was applied for all team sports.3 During the Beijing Games, the IOC ran, for the first time, an injury surveillance system covering all the athletes, showing a 10% incidence of injuries.4 In …
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