Gold, Silver, Bronze, or Global Health Legacies?

During the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, it was virtually impossible to miss the news that a country took the gold, silver, or bronze spot on the podium. Just within the United States, the media broadcasted the award ceremonies for each of the nine gold, eight silver, and six bronze medals. Absorbed in the triumph and joy of the games, public health was not a discussion or concern for many viewers and competitors in PyeongChang. When millions of people gather in one place there is usually great focus placed on the host country’s safety and security systems. However, public health seems to be left in the shadow, and left in the hands of health experts to ensure the population’s well-being and safety.

Mass gatherings like the Olympics in PyeongChang pose serious risks to public health and place immense pressure on the public health system. Athletes spend years working for their one moment at the Olympic Games, so ensuring safety against disease is of utmost importance. Typically, mass gatherings contribute to the international spread of disease, including the spread of meningitis, measles, polio, or influenza. To protect against the spread of disease, athletes and spectators traveling to mass gatherings are often advised to ensure they are up-to-date with vaccines and adult boosters, and to take precautions when consuming food and water.

The World Health Organization’s International Health Regulations offer guidance to event organizers on preventing and responding to health emergencies. These regulations establish legal rights and impose obligations on the 196 signatory countries, including the United States. The regulations operate to improve public health through national disease prevention, surveillance, control and response systems, and security in travel and transport. Because most governments are not experienced in hosting mass gatherings, these regulations provide the guidance necessary to look beyond immediate health concerns. Host countries are often encouraged to build systems and core competencies related to preparedness and disease surveillance. They are also encouraged to coordinate between the health sector and other areas to ensure health success.

Mass gatherings not only pose a health threat, but also may leave a health legacy on host countries. Countries hosting mass gatherings typically use the political force and resources to build a sustainable health system. Typically, the focus is on improving medical and hospital services; strengthening the public health systems; enhancing the living environment; and increasing health education and awareness. In order to fully improve the public health system, the country must engage in a societal approach that incorporates​ its government, international organizations, civil society organizations, private sectors, and industry associations.

The 2018 Olympic Games in South Korea will leave the country with a legacy of five gold medals, eight silver medals, and four bronze medals. However, off the podium, the Games leave behind another legacy for the hosting country—a legacy of improving public health.

Margaret Kawarski is currently a second-year law student at DePaul University College of Law. Ms. Kawarski graduated from DePaul University with a degree in Health Sciences. She is an active member in the Health Law Institute and will complete her law degree and certificate in health law in 2019.