How YOU can help improve the post-retirement health of our top-flight athletes

Olympic years can leave a legacy of pain

Date posted

19 December 2018


A global research study led by Edinburgh Napier University is analysing the risks and benefits associated with participating in elite sport.

The work is supported by the World Olympians Association, IOC Medical and Scientific Commission and the IOC Athletes’ Commission, and to date more than 4000 Olympians from 136 countries have taken part.

Now, as the project moves into its second phase, researchers are looking to recruit thousands of members of the public to take part so that they can carry out meaningful comparisons.

In an article published in 2018, a study by researchers from Finland found that former elite athletes were more likely to be physically active, have better self-rated health and live longer.

However, a second study on Great Britain Olympians in the same year found that significant injury at the knee and hip was associated with pain and the presence of osteoarthritis in later life. 

The Edinburgh Napier-led study into long-term health issues among Olympians was launched in April in order to better understand the risks and benefits.


The research is led by Dr Debbie Palmer, an associate professor and researcher in sports injury and illness prevention at the university, who competed in short track speed skating, representing Great Britain at three Olympic Winter Games.

Olympic athletes are exposed to high training and competition loads, and an increased risk of injury during their sporting careers. While injury rates during sport participation have long been reported, this is the first-ever global study commissioned to better understand the long-term health of Olympians after they retire from competition.

The research comes at an important time, with two British gold medallists, Amy Williams (2010) and Greg Rutherford (2012), recently reporting significant physical health issues in their life after sport.

The study asks Olympians questions about their sporting and injury history, their current health, and quality of life. Those who have taken part so far include male (55 per cent) and female (45 per cent) athletes who competed in summer (84 per cent) and winter (16 per cent) Olympic sports. The average age is 46 years, while the oldest Olympian to have completed the survey is 97 years old.

Research lead Dr Palmer said: “The aim of the study is to generate new knowledge in our understanding of the main long-term health issues related to Olympic-level performance, and to provide the evidence-base to help inform guidelines and recommendations to safeguard and improve Olympians’ health in later life.

“The second phase of the study now importantly seeks to match Olympians with members of the general public. In order to identify the risks, and benefits, associated with Olympic sport participation we want to compare what is normal for the general population to the findings of our retired Olympian population.

“We need people of all ages from the general population to complete a 20-minute questionnaire, the only criteria being you must be 16 years or older, and not have competed in a summer or winter Olympic games. The more people we can get involved, particularly older individuals, the better our study findings will be.”

To take part please CLICK HERE to complete the survey (Password: health2018). If you have any questions about the study, or to be emailed the study link, please contact the research team at

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