Cardiac Arrest in Athletes: The Reality and the Paradox


On the evening of May Day, I put up a status update on Facebook that inspired me to write this article.  There is a current worrying trend of the increase in the incidence of cardiac arrests in seemingly healthy athletes. I took to the multi-billion dollar social networking site to lay bare my frustrations. In the midst of my confusion over this issue, the saving grace was to come from medical practitioners on the platform who put my mind to rest as well as the large swell of people astonished by the recent tragedies.

The past couple of weeks have seen the global sports industry startled and shattered, the culprit- cardiac arrest, the athletes’ nemesis.

Bolton Wanderers player Fabrice Muamba, 23, miraculously survived a cardiac arrest after his heart stopped for 78 minutes while playing for his team in an FA Cup tie against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane. In effect, Muamba was dead for 1 hour, 18 minutes. Less than a month later, former Italy U-21 midfielder Piermario Morosini died after suffering cardiac arrest and collapsing on the pitch during his team Livorno’s Serie B match at Pescara, he was aged 25. On May 1, another thunder struck, as Norwegian world swimming champion Alexander Dale Oen died aged 26 in his bathroom in Flagstaff, Arizona, when Norway’s national swim team was training for the London Olympics 2012.

The paradoxes underlying these tragedies are overwhelming. Muamba is said to be one of the fittest players at his club, Morosini was healthy, and Dale Oen showed no indication then that he was sick. So what went wrong and how do we explain these incidences? When Cameroon footballer Marc –Vivien Foe died from cardiac arrest in 2003, the issue of fitness was raised, only to be explained by medical experts that the underlying cause of death from cardiac arrest is more likely to be hereditary rather than the level of an athlete’s fitness.

“Genetic abnormalities are usually associated with irregular heartbeat which is a disease of the heart muscles but where sports can play a role is on the likelihood on these conditions leading to a cardiac arrest. The evidence is not clear cut. Research has however proven that those with inherited conditions are twice more likely to suffer cardiac arrest if they play sports at the top level”.

Research indicates that cardiac arrests arise as a result of cardiac diseases of all types especially coronary artery diseases, which is impaired blood flow through the coronary arteries- the blood vessels that supply oxygenated blood to the heart. What this simply means is that any time the heart is starved of oxygen by any impairment in the way of the coronary artery, cardiac arrest can happen.

Coronary artery impairment is understood to be caused by the consumption of high levels of ‘bad cholesterol’, smoking, Type 2 Diabetes, obesity and physical inactivity. Athletes are obviously exempted from the last 2 causes- obesity and physical inability, making smoking and the consumption of diets high in fats and calories and low in fruits and vegetables important risk factors for athletes. Other cause like drug overdose has also been explained in the scientific world to have a hand in cardiac arrests.

Most people however do associate heart problems and cardiac arrest to older people. On the other hand, there is data which shows that about 500 people below the age of 30yrs in the UK die each year from cardiac arrest and therefore this knowledge defeats the age factor vehemently.

Athletes have a healthy heart by virtue of the fact that they are active,  but if they don’t eat right and don’t make lifestyle changes like the cessation of excessive smoking, they can still be predisposed to cardiac arrests. In fact, in this instance the arteries are already clogged and further stress is aggravated by physical activity and exercise which places a high demand on blood and oxygen on the heart. Emotional stress is also said to be a risk factor in some cases.

As the world mourns the fall of some of the greatest athletes to have ever graced their various disciplines, the onus lies on the institutions to save its heroes by intensifying regular check-ups and cardiac examinations of sportsmen to curb these catastrophes. As for Fabrice Muamba, he still clings unto his latest mantra, “I asked God to protect me and he didn’t let me down”. His story isn’t just a miracle, he is a miracle!

Gideon Commey

I am a writer a Community Organizer and Activist based in Ghana