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“As an athlete, you’re always thinking about yourself. Then my daughter, Kate, comes along and that whole perspective totally changes. I had to make every moment count, whether I was being a mom with Kate, or training at the gym,” says 2-time Olympian, Mandy Bujold. The Canadian boxer discusses her fight to earn a spot at the Tokyo Games after giving birth to her daughter. This #MomsGotGame

One hundred days before the Tokyo Olympic Games, World Champion rower Caileigh Filmer was ready to quit her sport. But instead, she decided to inspire others by sharing first-hand accounts of her experience with depression. Discover how the people responsible for mental health for Team Canada learned from the experiences of athletes like Filmer to support athletes and sport organizations preparing for the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing.

A high incidence of injury rates observed during Para alpine events at the 2014 Sochi Winter Paralympic Games led to a close collaboration between sport technical officials, host officials and the IPC Medical Committee. That collaboration led to rule changes, such as racing earlier in the day when snow conditions were better, which greatly reduced the injury rate at the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games.

When USA Gymnastics legend Simone Biles put her mental health ahead of the competition at the Tokyo Olympic Games, she elevated discussions around mental health to historic levels. For Canadian athletes and team officials, working to normalize the conversation around mental health also took centre stage. Read more about Team Canada’s approach to mental health in the SIRCuit.

When measuring the strength of any Major Games, such as the Olympics and Paralympics, the legacy it leaves behind can be a determining factor. Legacies can take many forms, including infrastructure advancement and social impact. Considering the impact of a country’s previous large, multisport events plays an important role in the success of its bids to host future Games.

The Paralympic Games have put a global spotlight on the disability community. In the workplace, building welcoming and inclusive spaces starts by hiring people with disabilities. In fact, new research suggests that employees with disabilities tend to have higher performance ratings and lower turnover rates, helping companies and organizations thrive.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games saw the introduction of several mixed-gender events, such as the triathlon relay and team judo. At Beijing 2022, 4 new events, in which women and men compete together, will be making their debut. These include mixed team snowboard cross, ski aerials, ski jumping, and short-track speed skating.

Swimmer Summer McIntosh. Fencer Jessica Guo. Artistic swimmer Rosalie Boissonneault. These teenagers were among the youngest Canadian competitors in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Their intensive training will likely continue for many years to come as they search for even more success in their respective sports. But what happens later, when these female athletes put away their training equipment, swimsuits and fencing weapons for good? Will the benefits of their training days last long into older age or will the “wear-and-tear” of their competitive years catch up with them?

Injury prevention is a key priority of many sport organizations, including the International Olympic Committee. With the “protection of the health of the athlete” in mind, research teams have delved into what works in injury prevention and health promotion to ensure that athletes can play longer and safer during their careers (Ljungqvist, 2008). This focus is especially important as the injury rate in competitive sports is rising (Palmer et al., 2021). However, an often-overlooked aspect of high performance athlete health is that of health after retirement, after the days of training and competition are over (Miller et al., 2020). Differences in the way these outcomes manifest themselves in men and women are expected, but most have yet to be investigated in retired high performance female athletes.

With the support of a SIRC Match Grant, our team explored the long-term health outcomes of high performance Canadian female rowing and rugby athletes who are at least 2 years into retirement. We received 74 survey responses from 30 rowing athletes and 44 rugby athletes. In this blog, we share our findings to help sports administrators, coaches and athletes (retired and current). Our findings can help them understand the long-term health effects of high performance sport to inspire their development of strategies to prevent injuries and optimize health. Here we highlight just a few.

Physical health

A trainer applies sports tape to a female athletes knee.During their careers, 63 athletes suffered hip, knee, foot, ankle or back injuries that kept them out of training for at least 1 week. Of those, 42 athletes reported they experienced symptoms in the same area within the last year. Despite this, 84% of our participants currently meet the recommended Canadian guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week. A participant explains her balance of longstanding musculoskeletal issues:

“While I feel that my physical health and ability to be active is adversely impacted by my joint issues, I know that I am far more active than most and my level of activity is likely protective for health issues.”

Reproductive health

One in 5 athletes reported menstrual irregularities during their career. Nevertheless, over 75% of those who wanted to become pregnant were able to do so and successfully delivered a child. At 33 years old, the average age of first-time mothers among our respondents was 3.5 years older than the Canadian average of 29.4 (Government of Canada, 2020). These statistics help show the dilemma female athletes face about continuing a sporting career or starting a family. An athlete reflected on what she would have done differently:

“I would have retired earlier. I would have allowed myself more time to try to have children. I retired too late and left myself too little time for this. I would still go back and compete but leave 4 years earlier.”

Mental health

Women's rowing team Despite over 80% of respondents having rated their current overall health as above average or excellent, anxiety (31%) and depression (38%) were common. Importantly, 58% of respondents reported a history of harassment in their sport, with the most common type of abuse as “unwanted comments about [their] body or appearance.” The link between current mental health and past abuse needs further investigation. One athlete’s advice to rookies in the sport speaks to the importance of mental health:

“Mental health requires as much attention as the physical.”

What do we do now?

These findings show that stakeholders in female high performance sport should consider various aspects, both during and after athletes’ careers, to show consideration and compassion for their long-term health and goals. Some suggestions for stakeholders include:

Female athletes playing rugbyThe good news is that over 80% of respondents would “do it again” if they had the choice to restart their careers.

We want to ensure that retired high performance female athletes don’t have to rely on hindsight for clarity. Instead, we would rather they have evidence-based guidance when they start their careers, to prioritize their health their entire life. An athlete who educates incoming rookies cleverly put it:

“I know this is all you want right now in life, but there is so much life after your competitive career. Enjoy it and try to keep a sense of balance.”

Climate change can have a profound impact on the conditions at the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, impacting athletes’ safety and ability to perform. Modelling suggests that if global emissions remain on the trajectory of the last 2 decades, only 1 city will remain worldwide with the ability to reliably host the Games. A low emission scenario aligned to the Paris Climate Agreement is needed to mitigate the impact of climate change on winter sports.

Did you know that 12% of athletes competing in the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games experienced an injury? While injury rates have remained similar across the last 3 Winter Olympics, there is considerable variation in incidence rates across sports. Understanding sport-specific variations in illness or injury can help with prevention and planning of healthcare during the Winter Games.