I’ve recently returned from a trip to Tokyo, Japan, where I was the guest of the Japan Triathlon Union (JTU). The occasion was their organization’s 5th Annual Forum, which this year was devoted to the issue of triathlon race safety.
I appreciate the kind invitation from Mr. Otsuka and Mr. Nakayama, the help of JTU’s Kenta Kodama with the travel arrangements, and the tremendous help with translation from Ms. Tomoko Wada. My hosts were gracious in every way. I must also thank the kind folks at USA Triathlon (USAT)–Terri Waters and Kathy Matejka, for help with gathering some updated information to present in Japan, and USAT President Barry Siff for making the necessary connections with JTU.
As readers here will know, I’ve had an interest in triathlon-related fatalities and the broader issue of sudden cardiac death among endurance athletes. I had the opportunity to lead a recent USAT effort to learn more about triathlon-related fatalities and our work resulted in a 2012 report entitled “Fatality Incidents Study.” As I’ve said before, this report is good reading for athletes and event organizers who are looking for recommendations about how to race safely and conduct events with athlete safety as a first priority.
Sadly, there were 6 triathlon-related fatalities in Japan in 2015, the most ever in a single year there. Dr. Ryoji Kasanami, the Chairman of the JTU’s Medical Committee, had become familiar with our work here in the USA and was interested in learning how our findings might help JTU with better safety planning, on the parts of both athletes and event organizers.
I gave a talk at the Forum where I outlined the USAT experience with fatalities since 2003. In large part, the information is summarized in my previous blog post, Triathlon Fatalities: 2013 in review. I was able to include some updates through the 2015 season, but the central themes were the same now as then:
- There is variation in the fatality rate from year to year, with an overall fatality rate of ~1 per 70,000 participants
- Most fatalities occur during the swim portion of events
- Most victims are male
- Fatalities are most common among middle-aged athletes
- There have been no fatalities among elite (professional) athletes
- Among victims, there is a wide range in athlete experience and ability
- There is a small number of trauma-related fatalities, arising from bicycle crashes
- Among non-traumatic fatalities, the vast majority suffered cardiac arrest at the race venue
- Available autopsy information for non-traumatic fatalities has shown heart abnormalities in the majority
Dr. Kevin Harris, from the Minneapolis Heart Institute, and I will be presenting an abstract at the upcoming American College of Cardiology meeting in April in Chicago on this topic. We’ll be sharing consolidated information about 106 fatalities, including the autopsy findings from 41 of the non-traumatic fatalities. I’ll report back here at the blog with an update in April.
Dr. Kasanami shared information about the Japanese experience with 37 fatalities over the past 3 decades. There were many similarities to the experience in the USA:
- Some years were “safer” than others
- Most fatalities occurred during the swim portion of events
- Most victims were male
- Fatalities were most common among middle-aged athletes
- There have been no fatalities among elite athletes
- There were no fatalities in young athletes
There were also some notable differences:
- There were no fatalities during the bike portion
- Autopsy was seldom performed in the victims
Interestingly, the bike course is always closed to vehicular traffic during triathlons in Japan, and this might obviously have an impact on the number of crashes and trauma-related fatalities. One interesting anecdote shared by a pathologist attendee related to the finding of inner ear bleeding (hemorrhage) in 2 victims. I’m not sure about the significance of this observation.
I’m intrigued by the many similarities of the Japanese experience with race-related fatalities. I also know from preliminary discussions with officials at Triathlon Australia that the experience in Australia is similar as well. I suspect that the causes of cardiac arrest in participating athletes are common broadly, and are more dependent on simply the human condition rather than race-related factors that might be specific to one region or another (eg, race safety or technical rules, approach to medical care on site, warm-up, etc.).
I’ll mention here that the Medical Committee of the International Triathlon Union (ITU) is very interested in this issue, particularly as it relates to elite athletes. I understand that efforts are being made to implement the requirement for mandatory periodic health evaluations, including EKG screening, for youth, U23, and elite athletes who participate in ITU races, perhaps beginning in the 2017 season. This follows on the heels of the international rowing federation adopting a similar policy, gradually, during the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
I worry a little about the ITU focus on elite athletes, since the problem of race-related fatalities seems to be largely one of age-group athletes, but I hope that age-group athletes will be paying attention to any recommendations that are implemented.
Lastly, I’ll close with some photographs from the trip. Since this was my first-ever visit to Tokyo and Japan, my hosts graciously afforded me about 8 hours of free time one day for the purpose of sightseeing and I took advantage. I hope to return to Japan soon to see even more.
- Triathlon Fatalities: 2013 in Review
- Fatal Arrhythmias in Open Water Swimming: What’s the Mechanism?
- Triathlon-Related Deaths: The Facts and What You Should Know