The Australian Olympic Committee has instituted enhanced heart checks of its London-bound team after the death of Norwegian swimmer Alexander Dale Oen this week and two recent on-field collapses in European soccer.
Dr. Peter Baquie, the Australian Olympic team's medical director, said more than two-thirds of the expected 400-strong squad had undergone extensive cardiovascular screening, including electrocardiograms ahead of 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.
"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 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-meter breaststroke at last year's world championships, died late Monday during a training camp in Flagstaff, Ariz. He was found collapsed on a bathroom floor of a suspected cardiac arrest, although the exact cause has not been established.
Italian soccer player Piermario Morosini collapsed and died on the field during a second division game for Livorno on April 14. Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba collapsed during an FA Cup match against rival Premier League club Tottenham on March 17 and survived.
The 23-year-old Muamba's heart stopped beating on its own for 78 minutes but the intervention of a cardiologist at the stadium helped save his life. Muamba, who celebrated his 24th birthday on April 6, attended a match between the two teams Wednesday, seven weeks after his collapse.
FIFA said it would study cardiac arrest cases involving soccer players, and the project will be put forward at FIFA's medical conference on May 23-24 in Budapest, Hungary.
Australian swimmers underwent cardiovascular screening at their orientation camp in Sydney in March after the Olympic trials.
Baquie was medical director for the 2008 Olympic team and the team doctor for Hawthorn, a high-profile Australian Rules soccer 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.
"In a maturing heart, it is possible to have a congenital abnormality which only presents itself in a cardiac death. We're trying to lessen the chances of that happening."