Organizers of next year's rescheduled Tokyo Olympics will have measures in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus. However, little is known about how the virus affects the long-term health of those who were already infected, including athletes. South African researchers are leading an international effort to try to find answers.
South African Olympic hurdler Wenda Nel is grateful to be back on track for next year's rescheduled Tokyo Olympics after recovering from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
"It was about two to four weeks that I've took it very slowly with the training. Checked my heart rate every training session. Just monitor that. And from there I actually went into full program. And I feel stronger … fit … and actually fully recovered right now," she said.
The International Olympic Committee tasked a prominent South African sports physician, Martin Schwellnus, to lead international scientists in compiling guidelines for doctors treating athletes recovering from acute respiratory infections, including the coronavirus.
The University of Pretoria's Sport, Exercise Medicine, and Lifestyle Institute (SEMLI), through the IOC Research Center in South Africa, initiated the international AWARE Research Study as part of this work. The project includes data from the COVID-19 Recovery Clinic for athletes.
Schwellnus, who is a professor at the University of Pretoria and the director of SEMLI, says COVID-19 seems to affect various organ systems.
"In the returning to sport, it could result in medical complications," he said. "And to date, we don't really know what these are for COVID. And so, the focus of the project is to investigate what happens in an athlete when they had COVID and how does the body heal and respond."
The project uses an online survey to gather data from any person training regularly for three hours a week who had acute respiratory infections, including COVID-19.
Those recovering from the ailment can join the COVID-19 Recovery Clinic for help returning to sports.
Medical doctor and amateur triathlete Marcel Jooste joined the clinic after he recovered from COVID-19, which he caught from a patient.
"I'm expected to follow a specific return-to-play protocol in terms of what I am allowed to do in terms of exercise," he said. "That is, if I've passed all the testing. And then I'm required to give them feedback in terms of how I'm feeling following training."
The research examines COVID-19's impact on all organ systems.
According to preliminary findings, athletes who have had COVID-19 find low-intensity exercise to be harder and recovery time much longer than from other respiratory infections.
Evidence-based guidelines should help recovering athletes to better and more safely prepare for the Tokyo Olympics, says Kelly Muller, rehabilitation specialist at the University of Pretoria's SEMLI.
"If an athlete does happen to contract COVID-19, it would be really important and really valuable for the coaches and medical professionals to have evidence-based advice to guide that athlete back to their performance in the shortest time possible," she said.
For Wenda Nel and other Olympic athletes recovering from the infection, the research could help them come home from Tokyo as champions.