Communication of athlete risk with head injuries in the 2020 Olympics

Dr David Cassilo 

Assistant professor at Kennesaw State University. His research interests largely focus on media portrayals of health issues in sport, specifically examining concussions and mental health. David’s other research areas include race and sport as well as social media usage. His work has been published in several academic journals and has been presented at academic conferences. 

Few Olympic athletes know the highs and lows of competition like BMX rider Connor Fields. In 2016, he was an Olympic gold medalist, the first American male to ever earn first in the sport. At the 2020 Olympics, he competed in the same event, but this time left not with a medal, but with a brain injury from his crash in the semifinal. As his supporters encouraged him to make another run for gold at the 2024 Olympics, Fields took to Twitter, reminding them he had brain hemorrhaging and saying in apparent frustration, “Do people realize I nearly died?” 

While the Olympics is a time to celebrate the athletes and sports that normally fall outside of mainstream viewing, the increased media exposure should not be solely devoted to positive content. The two-week period is also a rare opportunity to discuss the risks of these sports with a much larger audience. However, it often takes an injury like Fields’ to have that conversation. Some media outlets attempt to start that dialogue, such as The New York Times, which published an article during the 2020 Olympics focused on the concussion problem in synchronized swimming, but most coverage of athlete risk was reactive following an injury in the Olympics rather than proactive. 

The media has a great ability to shape discourses about health issues as well as public perception of these issues. Thus, there is great importance on providing adequate coverage of these Olympic sports, including their risks. Without such coverage, what may emerge is a fan with a limited understanding of the dangers of sport, and that can have consequences. A 2015 study found that U.S. collegiate athletes who suffered head injuries and experienced pressure to play from multiple sources, including fans, had a lower intention to report symptoms of a future concussion.

While sports like BMX riding and synchronized swimming may be at higher levels of risk than others, all sports push athletes’ bodies to the limit, and thus put the athlete at risk for physical injury. Prior research has found that the more often that elite athletes play their sport, the more likely they are to sustain injury. Yet, despite the frequency of athlete injuries, the physical welfare of the athlete is either taken for granted by fans or there is a belief that they should be risking their body. In sports like American football, injuries and the sport’s violent nature are viewed as simply part of the game and those athletes who play through pain have been celebrated. Although there has been a sort of awakening of acknowledging athlete mental health concerns over the past few years, physical health preservation is sometimes still met with disagreement. Even leagues themselves have pushed back on the idea of athlete preservation, as the National Basketball Association instituted penalties for resting player due to “load management.” Opponents of this resting philosophy claim athletes make millions of dollars and should not be sitting out no matter what the concern is.

Sitting out competition can be both a way to alleviate the everyday wear and tear of competing as well as to avoid catastrophic injury. For Fields, being rushed back from injury can have significant long-term effects. Those who suffer a brain injury and return to sport before fully healing are more susceptible to long-term issues or even death. So, while saying “Paris is in 3 years” to Fields may seem like harmless words of encouragement, anything that rushes an athlete back before he or she is healthy can increase their risk of even worse injury. Understanding such dangers related to sport can keep the fan more informed and the athletes safer.