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Dr. Peter Baquie © Gallo Images

Aus steps up heart checks of Oympians

The Australian Olympic Committee has instituted enhanced heart checks of its London-bound team, with this week's death of Norwegian swimmer Alexander Dale Oen and two recent on-field collapses in European football highlighting a need for more stringent medical testing.

Dr. Peter Baquie, the Australian Olympic team's medical director, said more than two-thirds of the expected 400-strong squad had already undergone extensive cardiovascular screening, including electrocardiograms (EKGs), less than three months out from the games.

Baquie said similar family history checks and other routine exams were done ahead of the 2008 Beijing Games, but EKGs were not conducted at that time.

"It's been an evolution over the past two or three years, and these recent cases of deaths and collapses have highlighted the need for this kind of testing in athletes who push themselves so hard in their sports," Baquie said in a telephone interview on Thursday.

"Athletes who train regularly have hearts bigger than the average person, even have different-shaped hearts, so the challenge is for us to determine what a 'normal' athlete's heart looks like."

The 26-year-old Dale Oen, one of Norway's biggest hopes for a gold medal in London after winning the 100-metre breaststroke at last year's world championships, died late Monday during a training camp in Flagstaff, Arizona. He was found collapsed on a bathroom floor of a suspected cardiac arrest, although the exact cause has not been established.

Italian football player Piermario Morosini collapsed and died on the field during a second division game for Livorno on April 14 and Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba collapsed during an FA Cup match against rival Premier League club Tottenham on March 17.

The 23-year-old Muamba's heart stopped for 78 minutes but the intervention of a cardiologist who was inside the stadium helped save his life. Muamba, who celebrated his 24th birthday on April 6, was at a match involving the same teams as a spectator on Wednesday, seven weeks after his collapse.

Fifa said it would study cardiac arrest cases involving football players and that the project will be put forward at Fifa's medical conference on May 23-24 in Budapest, Hungary.

Australian swimmers underwent cardiovascular screening, including an EKG, at their orientation camp in Sydney in March after the Olympic trials.

Baquie was also medical director for the 2008 Olympic team and is the team doctor for Hawthorn, a high-profile Australian Rules football club. He said there has been a worldwide movement in sports to include cardiovascular testing and investigate an athlete's family history.

"It has been years in the development," Baquie said, "although there has been some debate as to the medical benefit and the corresponding financial burden that these tests generate.

"What we are doing is in line with the IOC and at high levels in countries like Italy. The AFL here and various institutes (of sport) in Australia are doing it."

Australian breaststroker Christian Sprenger said "the heart is an engine, so you want it working properly."

"You would think being fit, you wouldn't run into these sort of problems," Sprenger told Sydney's Daily Telegraph newspaper. "But when you are training, your heart is pumping so fast. You are pushing it. And you are pushing it everyday."

Baquie agreed, telling the AP that athletes "tend to push themselves harder than any of us do, so it's possible that stress might cause a potentially fatal disturbance."

"In a maturing heart, it is possible to have a congenital abnormality which only presents itself in a cardiac death," he added. "We're trying to lessen the chances of that happening."


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