Despite being in top physical condition, many Olympic athletes have “terrible teeth”, says the Swiss dentist running a clinic for competitors at this year’s Games.
René Fasel, a member of the International Olympic Committee, is charged with keeping athletes' teeth in top form during their stay in Athens.
Zurich-based Fasel – who is also head of the International Hockey Federation – will run a clinic in the Olympic village, which is free to all competitors.
“It’s amazing. These athletes are in perfect shape, but their teeth are never 100 per cent,” Fasel told swissinfo.
“And dental problems can have such a big effect on an athlete’s performance,” he added. “For instance, an abscess can weaken the entire body and limit performance.”
Fasel said a team of 28 dentists would run the Athens clinic. The facility will have five chairs and an X-ray machine.
“We’re hoping to treat at least five athletes from every country – that makes 1,000 athletes over the two-week period,” he said.
Fasel, who ran a dental practice in Fribourg for 17 years, now focuses much of his energy on encouraging good dental care among sportsmen and women.
He says the Olympic Games offer a unique opportunity for specialists to compare teeth from around the world.
“I hesitate to use the word, but we dentists almost have an orgasm about it. It gives you an epidemiological picture that’s fantastic. And you also see how dentists around the world have treated people using different techniques.”
Fasel says working for the Olympic dental service offers a good reminder of the link between wealth and people's dental health.
“People from the poorer sports, such as athletics and football, are much worse off than say yachties, fencers or equestrian riders.”
He says many athletes come from countries where there is little or no dental care available.
“We know there is a problem for athletes coming from developing countries, but we also see many European athletes showing a lack of care for their teeth."
Fasel says many of the isotonic drinks and sports bars used by elite athletes are a contributing factor.
And then there are also those who claim that the use of performance-enhancing drugs can have a negative impact on people’s teeth.
“There is a theory that growth hormones have an impact on the lower jaw,” he said.
The Olympic dental programme, which every host city is obliged to provide, has been running in some form since the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.
Over the decades, the service has gradually expanded for both Summer and Winter Games. During the Sydney 2000 Games, around 1,200 patients visited an Olympic dentist.
A range of procedures are performed on athletes including fillings, cleaning and extractions. During the 1996 Atlanta games, 88 athletes had teeth pulled.
Fasel says many of the problems that affect athletes could have been identified well before the Games, which is why he encourages national Olympic committees to ensure their competitors have a check-up.
When the United States' 31-member biathlon team was examined in 1994, it was found that 11 had not seen a dentist in over two years, 12 needed wisdom-tooth extraction and at least seven had abscesses.
“Just imagine: an athlete trains for four years to get to the Games and suddenly one stupid tooth knocks you out.”
swissinfo, Jacob Greber in Zurich
René Fasel heads a dental programme for the Athens Olympic Games.
28 dentists will staff a clinic in Athens.
They expect to treat up to 1,000 athletes during the two-week games.
Fasel says the standard of dental health among athletes is very low.