Top athletes risk developing asthma

Top athletes run the risk of developing athsma due to their tough training programmes Keystone

Swiss experts have found that top athletes have a high chance of developing asthma.

This content was published on November 1, 2003 - 11:54

While the respiratory condition doesn’t affect their performance, it can become severe once they stop training.

One-fifth of the athletes who took part in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney suffered from asthma, and the problem is growing.

Although previous studies had already established a link between top-level athletes and asthma, the Swiss team set out to measure the scale of the problem.

Researchers spent three years with Switzerland’s triathlon team, assessing the health of the athletes as they trained.

Of the 34 team members, 27 already showed signs of asthma at the start of the study.

“We found that the seven athletes who didn’t previously have asthma would develop asthma within four and a half years,” explained Dr Bruno Knöpfli, who headed the study.

“Previously, it was believed that only athletes who train in the cold develop asthma,” he added. “But then we found it was affecting everybody who does top-level sports.”


Knöpfli says the challenge now is to find a way of preventing asthma from developing in athletes.

To do so, researchers need to discover why they develop the condition. But so far they know only that the cause is linked to the intensity with which athletes train.

The Swiss team also found that the asthma which develops in top athletes is different to the kind seen in most sufferers.

“This type of asthma is easily controlled. I never saw an athlete with chronic asthma having to reduce their sports activity,” said Knöpfli.

“The problem is, though, that this asthma will stay with them after they’ve finished their career.”

Despite the risks, Knöpfli says there is little chance athletes will be deterred from training.

“Athletes know what they’re doing and are willing to pay the price,” he said. “But we should still help them so they don’t have to pay too big a price.”

swissinfo, Joanne Shields


70% of participants at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, had asthma
This figure rose to 80% at the 1998 Swimming World Championships in Perth, Australia.

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In brief

Bruno Knöpfli’s team studied the Swiss triathlon team over three years.

Only seven of the 34 team members could be tested because the rest already had asthma.

Knöpfli’s team found all seven athletes would develop asthma over four and a half years.

The type of asthma seen in top athletes is not the same as that found in other sufferers.

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