Marit Bjørgen declined comprehensive cardiac health screening two months ago.
According to Sweden’s Aftonbladet newspaper, Bjørgen and other Norwegian skiers were offered extensive testing designed to detect heart disease in the late summer or fall. After hitting 200 beats per minute during hard skate intervals on Saturday – far above normal – she checked into a hospital for testing which showed an irregular heartbeat.
This past May, Alexander Dale Oen, who won a silver medal in swimming at the Beijing Olympics, died of cardiac arrest during a Norwegian team training camp in Arizona. Following his death, elite Norwegian skiers were offered comprehensive heart screenings, but according to Norwegian coach Vidar Lofshus, “We did not think it was necessary.”
Prolonged training for endurance sports produces changes in heart structure that some researchers claim increases risk of heart attack. Some studies have also shown that intense training can produce changes in heart rhythm. Norwegian national team doctor Dag Lunder cited one study showing that elite cross-country skiers have a 15 percent higher risk of heart arrhythmia than the normal population.
Dale Oen’s autopsy revealed previously undetected atherosclerotic coronary artery disease – arterial blockage – which led to his heart attack. Earlier this summer, Martin Johnsrud Sundby also had heart arrhythmia issues.
Team manager Vidar Lofshus said that his athletes had undergone blood tests to check for heart disease. Although skiers had had echocardiograms (ECG) in the past, they didn’t undergo the extensive testing that Bjørgen had on Saturday. This included ultrasound and stress testing as well as ECG. “Now we have to see if we should go ahead with this kind of testing,” Lofshus added.