Team Blog

Why the Olympic injury tally is as important as the medal tally

Hannah Ball

The reality is that whenever and wherever athletes meet in competition, to push their bodies to the limits of their physical performance, then musculoskeletal injuries will occur.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), and its International Sports Federation members, has long recognised this and there is a very strong history of efforts to reduce the frequency and severity of these injuries. But how do we know this?

The answer is … the injury tally.

While injuries have been recorded to some extent at most Olympics over the past few decades, at the Beijing Games a commitment was made to implementing a robust injury surveillance system. The aim was to record the details of every injury incurred during the competition for which some form of medical or allied health treatment was provided to the injured athlete. The 2012 London Games have the benefit of the most sophisticated form of injury recording and surveillance yet applied at an international multisport event. Injuries will be tabulated and tallies created of the most common body parts injured, the most common types of injury, which sports lead to more injuries than others and the causes of those injuries.

This information is invaluable to Games organisers because it provides important information for medico-legal reasons. It also gives a neat summary to future games organisers for key logistic and planning issues. How many polyclinic sites for injury treatment will they need to provide for? What numbers of professionals do they need to staff these clinics and what should be the ratio of doctors to physiotherapists to nurses, etc? How many treatment or massage tables need to be available at any given time? How many rolls of tape do they need to pre-order? What first aid supplies do they need to provide in kits and how should they distribute them across Game venues?

But even more importantly, the injury tally gives information that is incredibly important for injury prevention purposes. If the tally highlights a lot of injuries in a given sport, information about how and why the injuries occurred can then be used to implement prevention strategies to reduce the risk of further injury. Ideally, with real time surveillance there is very quick data feedback, so these measures can be implemented straight away. In more complex cases, the information can be used to plan for safer sporting environments in future Games or fed back to peak sports bodies to inform their delivery of safer sport.

Ok. I can accept that not perhaps everyone is as keen on the injury tally as I am.

But for sports injury prevention researchers like me, the injury tally is a goldmine of information. It gives strong justification for investment in injury prevention research and provides an evidence-base to help prioritise our research efforts. Most crucially, it highlights areas most in need of injury prevention initiatives and can profoundly affect the way we think about how to optimally deliver sports safety programs. But perhaps, best of all, when compared with previous Games, the injury tally for 2012 should demonstrate where we have been successful because it will also show up areas where the number of injuries are much fewer than before, exactly because of our preventive efforts.

Gold medals for performance. Golden injury surveillance data for prevention!