More than 1,100 Australians died while playing sport over the last two decades, an average of more than one each week, according to new research from Edith Cowan University.

Researchers have made the first national analysis of fatal injuries occurring during sport or active recreation. Dr Lauren Fortington from ECU’s School of Medical and Health Sciences said the findings showed the shocking cost to everyday Australians for our national obsession.

‘We wouldn’t tolerate these injuries in a workplace, so we shouldn’t tolerate them on our playing fields,’ she said. ‘If you look at the sports pages of a national media outlet, chances are there’ll be a story there about an Australian dying or experiencing serious injury while playing sport.

‘It’s easy to brush those cases off because they’re happening in different sports, but when they’re brought together that number is staggering,’ she said.

‘The results cover adventure sports, individual sports as well as some of our well-known team sports.’


Motorsports biggest killers

Motorcycling accounted for nearly a quarter of all recorded deaths, with road cycling and horse riding also featuring in the top three most deadly sports.

Surprisingly, swimming and walking were also among the sports with the most deaths recorded over the study.nThe data was collected from Coroner’s reports and investigations from around Australia from 1 July 2000 until 31 December 2019.

Dr Fortington said the study only included people who died from an injury while participating in sport or active recreation.’We did not include drowning or medical related deaths or those associated with commuting through cycling and motorcycling,’ she said.

‘In water sports such as swimming or scuba diving, the majority of deaths recorded here resulted from a piercing or penetrating injury, often involving animals such as sharks and crocodiles.’


Worth the risk?

Despite the number of people large number of Australians dying during sport, Dr Fortington said we should still be encouraging as many people as possible to take part in sport.

‘We want the public to understand the risks involved with individual sports and for sporting bodies and regulators to be given information to minimise or control risks,’ she said.

‘This could include things like looking at the design of race tracks, vehicles or speed restrictions and better safety equipment to control risks in motorsport.

‘The huge participation we have in sport in Australia is awesome but its still important to balance participation with informed risk and safety interventions,’ said Dr Fortington.


Understanding sport deaths as a whole

Dr Fortington and her colleagues hope the study will help a range of sports to improve safety measures.

‘We’ve seen some team sports including cricket and rugby union invest heavily in injury prevention as a result of high-profile deaths in their sports,’ she said. ‘We want to be able to take what we learn from injuries or deaths in one sport and be able to take positive action towards prevention for all sports.

‘This information is vital for making informed decisions about safety for everyone who plays sport or is active in their recreation time,’ she said.

‘We keep saying they’re freak events, but this research shows they’re not, they happen with some regularity when playing sport.’

Dr Fortington pointed to the United States’ National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research as a potential model for Australia to investigate to improve how deaths from playing sport are tracked.

The full study is available here.