Study: Serious disparity in international athletics

Study: Serious disparity in international athletics
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Washington, US: Athletes from less rich countries require additional health knowledge to avoid injuries during rigorous training. However, if there is no access to medically qualified personnel, greater knowledge can raise the danger of injury. This is the conclusion reached by researchers at Linkoping University in Sweden in a new study on athletic inequality.

"There were vast disparities in support resources between juniors from various parts of the world." "While European competitors had entire medical teams and computer-based analysis programmes to help them, the main support for young East African competitors was often a family member or teacher from their home village," says Professor Toomas Timpka of Linkoping University's Department of Health, Medicine, and Caring Sciences.

The researchers have conducted studies among juniors and seniors who participated in two international athletics championships at an elite level in 2017. In the final study recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, 780 athletes from different countries were asked if they had experienced symptoms of injury during their preparations and, in that case, if this had led them to adapt their training.

They were also asked about their ability to independently acquire and use health knowledge to prevent injuries - something the researcher's term health literacy. This is an area of which little is known.

The researchers also used the UN's annual development index, which ranks countries based on a number of factors, including education and income levels. This was used to estimate the medical support resources of the national teams. Taking development indices into account is new for research, according to Toomas Timpka.

The differences in knowledge between adults and young people were shown to be great. Only 13 per cent of the juniors were judged to have basic health literacy, compared with 41 per cent of the adults. Regardless of age, athletes from countries with a high development index were more knowledgeable than competitors from other parts of the world.

But the results also show that good individual knowledge is not all that matters.

When comparing athletes within a well-resourced national team, it was certainly shown to be more likely that those with good knowledge would reduce their training when feeling an injury than compatriots with less knowledge.

But the opposite was true in more resource-poor national teams, such as the Kenyan team. There, a knowledgeable person had a lower probability of reducing training than a less knowledgeable compatriot.

The researchers conclude that the knowledge of individual athletes is not enough. At worst, it can even cause them to overestimate their ability to make the correct judgement. What makes a difference is whether they have access to medically trained people for advice and support. But here, inequality is great between countries.

In order to address the inequality in health literacy among young people, Toomas Timpka believes that World Athletics, the international athletics federation, should cooperate with the UN Development Programme. Then, everyone who dedicates themselves to athletics could get a school education that lives up to the global sustainability goals.

Doing something about the unfair distribution of support resources is more difficult. Direct financial contributions unfortunately risk disappearing through corruption, according to Toomas Timpka. One possibility could be that the more prosperous associations, through World Athletics, share their personnel and technical resources with less fortunate athletes ahead of major championships.

The researchers have not investigated the consequences of the differences in support of the competitive results of the athletes. This will be followed up in connection with the World Athletics Championships in Budapest in the summer of 2023.