World of Sport

Why is it that super-fit Olympians have such ‘garbage’ teeth?

World of Sport

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Alan Campbell of Britain (Reuters)

It may not be something you have ever noticed while soaking up Olympic coverage over the years, but some of the most athletic stars in the world have issues besides the odd injury.

The Olympics may showcase some truly impressive and inspiring physiques, but good teeth are very unlikely to make appearances on sport’s biggest stage.

Paul Piccininni, the dental director for the International Olympic Committee, has explained why the otherwise super-human specimens often have teeth which would shame a wino on the South Bank swigging from a bottle .

"They have bodies of Adonis and a garbage mouth," Piccininni told AP.

Piccininni has had years of dealing with broken teeth, abscesses, decay and other dental issues with Olympians, but he is bound by medical secrecy requirements and cannot provide any specific details.

"I know, but I shouldn't say," Piccininni said. "We've seen the best of the best."

"The oral health of athletes is worse than the oral health of the general population - considerably worse."

A notable star cited by Piccininni is Michael Jordan, who encountered a “significant dental problem that could have kept him out of a game” at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where he was top scorer on the gold medal-winning US basketball team.

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Michael Jordan, representing the USA (Reuters)

So why is it that some of sport’s biggest stars have such enormous problems with their teeth?

It all comes down to what athletes consume while they are pushing their bodies to the limits - and we are not talking about illegal substances. Far from it, in fact: the culprit is something you can buy in any shop in the world.

Athletes, without even considering the consequences, constantly refuel with incredibly sugary energy drinks, gels and bars, in addition to very frequent meals, which impact on dental health.

Dehydration from excessive sweating can also cut the production of saliva needed to regenerate tooth enamel, causing further problems.

One sport cited by Tony Clough, who set up a dental clinic for Olympians at the 2012 London Games, as particularly prone to problems is rowing because of the "huge amounts of decay" that occurs due to hours spent in boats, refueling with teeth-eroding acidic, sugary drinks.

"We had patients coming in at 10:30 at night to have root canals and things like that," said Clough, whose clinic had 30 dentists and 1,900 visits..

An abscessed lower-left wisdom tooth threatened to keep British rower Alan Campbell out of the 2008 Beijing Olympics after the infection spread to his shoulder, back and eventually settled in his right knee, requiring surgery two months before the Games and ruining his training.

"I certainly would have gone quicker,” said Campbell, who placed fifth in the Olympic single-sculls final. At the London Games four years later, Campbell won bronze.

"I'm not saying someone with perfect teeth is going to beat Usain Bolt," Campbell told AP.

"But myself with good dental hygiene versus myself with bad dental hygiene: The version of me with good dental hygiene will be the one that comes out on top, I'm certain of it."

Clenching teeth during strenuous physical effort can also grind them down, as Campbell noted when he said “that was the stress, a lot of pressure going through my mouth”.

"You could land the Space Shuttle" on some athletes' teeth, said Piccininni. "Flat as a pancake. They have worn it down so much."

In Rio at the 2016 Olympics a dedicated clinic will have eight dental chairs, X-ray machines, root canal specialists, surgical facilities and there will be full-time dedicated dentists at hockey, rugby, and basketball for any injuries. Treatment will be free.

"[Some Olympians] know they've had a dental problem for three weeks or a month or three months, but they know if they can hold off until they get to the Games they get it treated for free," Piccininni said.

"That's fine. That's one of the reasons that we're there, is because athletes don't have the financial resources."

So there you have it: one of the great sports paradoxes has been explained and we can all go on our way better informed about one of the less well known sporting health issues. Who knew it could be such a big factor in determining medals.

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