The athletes who compete in the Olympic Games are the representation of what the human body can do at its peak physical condition.
Yet few Olympians would win a medal in dental hygiene if there was one. According to a May 18 Tech Times article, numerous dental problems and concerns among athletes at the 2008 Beijing Games led the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to call for more studies on the dental hygiene of the world’s top athletes.
It’s not a new issue — in 1984, Michael Jordan, the top scorer on the U.S. men’s basketball team, was known for his severe dental problems. In 2008, a wisdom tooth with a dental abscess nearly prevented British rower Alan Campbell from competing at the Beijing Olympics. The abscess caused an infection which spread to his back, shoulder and eventually his right knee.
“They have bodies of Adonis and a garbage mouth,” Paul Piccininni, dental director of the IOC, told the New Pittsburgh Courier. “The oral health of athletes is worse than the oral health of the general population — considerably worse.”
According to the Tech Times article, the IOC said it believes Olympians’ teeth decay and erode as a result of the sugary sports beverages they consume regularly, even excessively. Other factors include dehydration from excessive sweating, which reduces the amount of saliva produced that helps with enamel regeneration, and even the average age group for many Olympians. Between the ages of 16 to 25, teeth are most at risk for problems like decay because people this age often neglect habits like brushing and flossing.
At the 2012 London Games, the Olympians’ dental clinic was staffed with 30 dentists, and 1,900 visits were made over the two-week period, according to the New Pittsburgh Courier. In a study published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine last September that examined 278 of the dental clinic’s visitors, 55% had cavities. About 75% of the visitors had diseased gums, and about 25% said that their dental problems impacted their quality of life.
As the IOC looks ahead to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janiero, it plans to staff its Olympian dental clinic just as fully, with full-time dentists on hand for any dental injuries that could occur in contact sports like basketball or rugby. While there will be plenty of dental help available for athletes, it’s still unclear as to whether a major change can be made among athletes’ dental habits.