When Norway’s Olympic athletes boarded flights to Vancouver in 2010, they were given a long list of instructions on how to avoid getting sick – strategies like using disinfectant hand gel, avoiding shaking hands with fans, and even covering hotel carpets with plastic upon arrival.
For today’s world-travelling athletes, staying healthy is a key prerequisite to going for gold. That’s no easy task after the soul-parching rigours of a long-haul flight, which is why sports scientists in Norway and elsewhere have been trying to nail down the key risk factors. Their conclusions apply just as well to business travellers and vacationers, and the most recent results suggest a surprising twist: The flight itself, no matter how long, matters less than what happens when you get there.
In some ways, airplanes seem like they were deliberately designed to maximize your chances of catching your neighbour’s flu. You’re packed tightly with hundreds of others in a confined space, with dry air that strips your airway’s linings and recirculates the same germs over and over. On long flights, fatigue, stress and sleep deprivation lower your immune defences, making it harder to fight off the germs you’re exposed to.
But the strategies the Norwegian medical staff identified focused more on the destination, keeping the athletes away from germ risks – and even from each other – once they’d arrived. Athletes who had a history of respiratory-tract infections or a heavy competition schedule were even given single rooms in the Olympic Village or in houses rented by the Norwegian team.
The result: The incidence of illness on the Norwegian team during the Vancouver Games was cut to less than one-third of its rate during the 2006 Olympics in Turin, according to a post-Olympic report published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Only one medal contender was affected in Vancouver, compared to six in Turin, and Norway increased its gold-medal haul from two to nine.