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The 5 riskiest sports of the London 2012 Olympics

It’s June 2012 and unless you’ve spent these past few months living under a rock, you will have noticed that we’re in the 4th year of an Olympiad and now have just over 2 months to go before London 2012.

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Beijing 2008 was an epic Olympics in more ways than one and as a result, London has some pretty big shoes to fill. However, an awesome logo design, a mascot that can only be described as Cyclops’ slightly cuter cousin, and rumours of an opening ceremony featuring artificial rain clouds and sheep (yep, sheep) may not have given them the best start. Small wonder then, that Britons have been left feeling a little apprehensive about what their capitol city has in store for them but nonetheless, the worldwide excitement and unification that the comes with the Olympics is still undeniable and we can’t help but look forward to whatever is to come.

When the first modern Olympics took place, a mere 245 athletes from 14 nations competed in Athens in 1896. Fast-forward to July 2012, and London will play host to 10,000 elite athletes from 205 nations and all will undoubtedly be pushing themselves to reach higher, faster and harder levels than ever before.

When elite athletics compete on a professional level, there’s always going to be a chance of some spectacular injuries occurring and while some events are riskier than others, all carry certain dangers. So, if the upcoming summer Olympics inspire you to get off the couch and try something yourself, then here are some possible dangers involved with (what we consider to be) the more dangerous events that will take place in London 2012.

1) The Pole Vault

The pole vault has been included in track and field events since the very first modern Olympics and while it may not be the event you most want to try (unless you conveniently have a giant carbon fibre pole lying around the place) we’re going to tell you about the risks anyway.

There’s a ridiculous amount of technique involved with this particular event so even if you’ve mastered the seemingly impossible task of launching yourself 15ft into the air, you still have to try and land, and hope your head hits the matt and not the surrounding floor.

Prior to 2003, high schools across the United States (where the sport is huge for some reason) witnessed an increasing amount of accidents that resulted in some serious rule changes taking place within both amateur and professional levels of the sport.

The rule changes ensured that all hard surfaces surrounding the actual landing matt needed to be padded as well as standardizing pole weights and grips. However, some reports are still presenting negative feedback and from 2003-2009 one study noted that there were a total 19 catastrophic injuries during that period; occurring at an average of 2.1 per year. Out of these, 11 were major head injuries with 1 ending in fatality, 4 involved spine fractures and 2 with pelvic fractures as well as the odd brain stem injury too.

So while the number of injuries has decreased since 2003, they are clearly still occurring and more changes are still being considered.
A major concern you want to watch out for is the planting box mainly because it’s made out of metal and judging from previous incidents, if you fall head first on to that – its game over. In fact, it may not be too long before all pole vaulters, even at the Olympics, are sporting savvy helmets to tackle this problem.

2) Gymnastics

Everybody loves tuning into the gymnastic events, whether you’ll admit it or not. But unless you’re one of those unnaturally flexible people, or started when you were still in kindergarten, your chance to shine in the gymnastics world has probably passed by now. Still, don’t let us deter you! Just keep these risks in mind if you’re going to give it a go.

If an injury does occur, you’re most likely to hurt your upper extremities, followed by the lower ones, your head then your trunk. Strains and sprains are most common but let’s not rule out fractures, dislocation or concussions either.
Due to the ridiculous amount of training, injuries tend to mainly occur from overuse but falls and dodgy dismounts play a pretty major role too.
Where elite gymnasts are concerned, tricks get pretty insane and falls can have even more disastrous consequences.

Chinese Olympic gymnast Wang Yan was competing at her national championships when she broke her neck falling headfirst from the uneven bars and has tragically been unable to walk since.
Other gymnasts have been luckier though and even managed to power through their pain to win gold. Take Japanese Shun Fujimoto at the 1976 Montreal Olympics; his devotion to his team and country was demonstrated in an incredible way when, even after breaking his kneecap, he continued with his two final events and scored an impressive 9.7 on the rings, contributing to a fifth gold medal for Japan that year.

If gymnastics are taken to an elite level, it can have detrimental psychological effects too, especially when you consider most gymnasts will have started from a very young age and had the perfectionist culture that accompanies gymnastics implanted in their brains right from the start.

Young gymnasts can start prioritizing perfection above other life aspects such as friends, family and even food. Especially in females, where even though weight gain is a natural part of puberty, young teenagers can succumb to the pressures of maintaining a certain weight and therefore eating disorders are not uncommon in the world of gymnastics.

However, with gymnastics reaching higher and higher levels with each Olympics, these health risks don’t appear to be putting anyone off just yet, and we’re pretty pleased about that.

3) Cycling

Another long standing Olympic event that’s been around since the origin of the modern games is cycling.

Considering Olympic cyclists can average 40-50mph and fly around at these speeds over various terrains, it’s not difficult to imagine some of the risks involved here. However, you’re not likely to be reaching speeds quite as impressive as these just yet, so you just need to watch out for the more basic (but painful nonetheless) injuries.

Your knees and back are likely to suffer the most but let’s not rule out hand numbness, muscle cramps and the wince-inducing groin injury risk of long-distance cycling that for your sake guys, we won’t go into detail with.

One study noted that among competitive cyclists, back pain appeared to be the most prevalent condition, followed by knee pain then neck/shoulder pain. And then there’s the matter of taking a tumble, which will undoubtedly involve soft tissue and musculoskeletal damage.

What’s more, this year will be the second time BMX events will be involved at the Olympics so just take what we’ve already told you, but factor in injury risks to pretty much every part of your body as that’s just what can happen when you combine ridiculous tricks on a tiny bike at crazy heights.

4) Equestrian events

Dating back to the times of the Greeks, events involving horses have always played a big role at the Olympics.
It’s no secret that horse riding is a risky business. You are, after all, at least 1.5 meters above the ground, on an animal that will only listen to you if it suits it and that naturally responds to danger by fleeing as fast as it can. Go figure.

In fact, some studies have gone as far as to conclude that horse riding is the third most dangerous sport in the world and even carries more risks than riding a motorcycle. After studying hospital admission rates, equestrian related activities totaled 0.49 accidents for every 1000 hours of riding whereas motorcycle injuries only scored 0.14 accidents for every 1000 hours.
Again, this simply relates back to the fact that a motorcycle is a machine and a horse is an animal with a mind of its own so it’s not too surprising really.

If this hasn’t put you off, then great! Horse riding is a beautiful sport and is one of the few Olympic events (or sports in general) where men and women compete on the same level.
Common injuries to expect though are strains, sprains and bruises and those affecting soft tissues and muscles.

However, injuries depend on the activity you’re doing at the time. For instance, when in the general riding position, you’re more likely to fall on your behind or back; but when jumping the rider sits out of the saddle and leans forward therefore making them more prone to head injuries and maybe a concussion or two. Paralysis and fatalities are not strangers within the horse riding world either but it really is all down to chance as with when a sport revolves around a huge animal, there really are a number of situations that can arise.

Luckily, safety standards have been put in place for years now and helmets and protective vests are compulsory in most equine schools worldwide.

5) Boxing

Don’t have a horse handy? Why not give boxing a try! Another favourite of the Greeks, boxing has been around for ages – literally. So while it’s had a chance to evolve greater safety standards, it still involves deliberately inflicting pain to another human being and is naturally pretty darn risky even at an amateur level.

Great for your overall fitness levels, boxing and the training it involves is relatively risk free until you get in the ring and then the danger can become very real.
The American Association of Neurological Surgeons report that 90% of boxers at a professional level sustain some form of brain injury and while the sport accounts for fewer deaths than others, brain injuries often leave lasting damage on affected boxers.

Imagine a padded mallet weighing around 12lbs, swinging at speeds of up to 20mph directly striking your head and that’s what they say experiencing the full force of a boxers punch is like. No wonder then that punches to the head can cause significant damage both internally and externally. In a rather bizarre turn of events, one of the mainstays of modern boxing “safety,” the boxing glove, may actually be contributing to higher accident rates in the sport.

Back when Boxing was a bare knuckle sport it was very unusual for the boxers to punch each other in the face or head. The simple reason for this was… well, have you ever tried punching a wall? The difference is essentially the same, go punch a wall and then find a friend who is willing to let you take a swing. We will wait.

Now that we’ve concluded our extremely scientific experiment (and hopefully your “friend” isn’t now an enemy), what did you notice? If you were paying attention you will have found out that someone’s face and a wall are both extremely hard, and that striking them with your bare hands will hurt. A lot. With the advent of boxing gloves, boxers are now free to wail on each other’s faces and heads non-stop – there is no pain to stop them from landing an oh-so-sweet uppercut right on the jaw. But this one factor is probably the biggest reason why Boxing, today, is one of the most injury prone sports in the world.

However, the degree of damage that boxers experience is dependent on their status and as an amateur or hobbyist; you should worry less about your brain and more about the numerous cuts, bruises, black eyes and fat lips you are more likely to receive.

Professionals on the other hand, make themselves more prone to brain diseases the longer they compete. The chance of suffering from Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease is high as, even with protective head gear, constantly submitting your brain to heavy blows can result in damage to nerve networks, brain tissue and sometimes blood clots.
The boxing legend that is Mohammed Ali is tragically, a classic example of this and has suffered from Parkinson’s disease since 1984.

So while numerous boxing safety acts have been put in place over the years, there are many medical professionals who still firmly believe there is more to be done to protect boxers and many more who think the sport should be banned all together.
However, considering it has already been round for so long, it’s unlikely that we’ll see boxing dropped from the Olympics anytime soon, it may just differ from how we know it today.

Judging from the trend of past Olympics, skill levels are increasing, competition is becoming fiercer and athletes are pushing themselves to reach more impressive feats with each Olympiad. So while they may be putting themselves at risk every time they compete, they are fuelled by a passion for their country that only an event like the Olympics can bring about and this will undoubtedly make for some spectacular entertainment this summer. No pressure London…