With the Olympics underway, and reading about South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius, the men’s Olympic 400 meter runner with prosthetic legs, I began wondering about Olympians past and present with health issues, These and others may be inspirational, informative or in some cases maybe even lend hope to readers, and so here are Dr. Pullen’s:
Ten Bits of Olympic Health Trivia
- Asthma is likely the most common chronic health condition of Olympic athlete’s today, affecting an estimated 8% of the 2002-2010 Summer and Winter Olympians. In 2001 the IOC recognized the increased use of medications like albuterol (beta-2 agonists) and since then allow their use for athletes who provide proof of their disease. A great example is the current marathon world record holder and English Olympic qualifier Paula Radcliffe, unable to compete in the 2012 Olyimpics due to an osteoarthritic foot/ankle problem, who uses an albuterol inhaler prior to exercise in order to train and compete with her asthma.
- Skin conditions are very common in Olympic athletes, especially those with a lot of skin-to-skin contact and those in water sports. Wrestlers at all levels struggle with tinea corporis (ring-worm), staph skin infections including MRSA, and herpes simplex (herpes gladiatorum). Water sports requiring lots of time in the pool can increase risks of skin fungal infections and excessive skin drying due to chlorine. Runner’s nipples are a friction related issue for long distance runners, especially marathoners.
- Olympic Tennis Gold Medal winner Serena Williams had a pulmonary embolus in 2011, a potentially life threatening condition. A pulmonary embolus usually develops from a blood clot in one or more of the deep veins in the legs, which then breaks free from the leg and travels to the lungs. A large embolus can cause sudden death, and is one of the more common causes of sudden death in otherwise healthy young persons.
- Possibly the most famous Olympian to compete after a major health concern was Lance Armstrong who was diagnosed with and treated for Stage 3 testicular cancer in 1996. Other Olympians who have battled testicular cancer include Eric Shanteau, who postponed treatment after a diagnosis of testicular cancer a week prior to the 2008 games in Beijing and posted a personal best time in the semi-finals there, before returning to the U.S. for treatment. He returned to London this year to capture a gold medal in the men’s 4×100 medley relay. Jake Gibbs, a U.S. beach volleyball player was diagnosed with a very early stage testicular cancer when he had a false positive test for testosterone in routine competitive drug testing that led to the diagnosis. He is currently still in the competition for a medal at the London games.
- U. S. Olympian Gary Hall Jr. won 5 gold and 10 total Olympic medals in swimming events. Several of the competitions came after his diagnosis with type 1 (insulin dependent) diabetes following the 1996 Atlanta summer games.
- At least two former U.S. Olympic Champions, Greg Louganis and Magic Johnson have been diagnosed with HIV-AIDS. Both of these athletes contacted the HIV virus prior to their last Olympic competitions. Magic captained the U.S. Dream team in Barcelona, and Louganis has been criticized for not revealing his HIV-positive status, especially after the famous diving-board accident. That we have come a long way in treatment of HIV is apparent as both of these HIV infected athletes are still alive and seeming quite well 20+ years later.
- The fact that breast cancer is an equal opportunity disease, not sparing the most fit of women is emphasized with former Olympians Dorothy Hamill, Martina Navratilova, and Peggy Fleming having had this diagnosis.
- Venus Williams, sister of Serena mentions above with a pulmonary embolus, has struggled with Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune rheumatologic condition that can lead to fatigue and can be very difficult to manage.
- Carrie Johnston is an Olympic swimmer who has struggled with Crohn’s disease for some time, and has been able to compete at an Olympic level with treatment.
- Dana Vollmer is an Olympic swimmer who at age 15 was diagnosed with long QT-syndrome, and for years was only allowed to compete when a cardiac defibrillator was immediately available at pool side. She appears to have “outgrown” this condition, not something that I am aware of as a typical outcome.
We can look at these at these examples and others as how talented and motivated individuals can overcome serious health problems to achieve remarkable personal goals. Most of us are not and will not be Olympians, but we can all be our own very best, and can overcome remarkable obstacles with the right attitude and help.
Go Olympians. Go Readers too.