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Samantha Putterman
By Samantha Putterman June 23, 2022

Claims connecting sudden death in athletes to COVID-19 vaccines fall short of scrutiny

If Your Time is short

  • Scientific reviews, medical experts and sports cardiologists have found no association between sudden death in athletes and the COVID-19 vaccines. 

  • Figures used to support the claim that there is a link are inconsistent and often include unconfirmed and incomplete reports that don’t confirm vaccination or involve any emergency episodes.

Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome, also known as SADS, has been studied for years. The syndrome is caused by an undetected genetic heart condition and often occurs in young adulthood. 

But ever since the COVID-19 vaccines were released in late 2020, people have continually suggested that the shots are making SADS more common. 

Articles and social media posts have highlighted instances of young athletes collapsing during games, with claims that the rate of these occurrences are way up since the vaccines came to market.  

Take this Instagram post: "SADS — according to International Olympic Committee data, an average of 29 athletes under the age of 35 suffer sudden death per year from 1966-2004. From March 2021 to March 2022, 769 athletes have died or suffered cardiac arrest."

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

There are a number of issues here. First: the data itself. While the study that the post described as "International Olympic Committee data" only reflects sudden deaths, the 769 figure it is being compared with incorporates deaths and cardiac arrest episodes that did not result in death. PolitiFact’s review of some of the reports that were counted in that figure also found the number included reports of cases that didn’t involve any emergency medical episodes at all. 

Second, the study that the Instagram post said looked at sudden cardiac deaths in athletes from 1966 to 2004 wasn’t, as it suggested, conducted by the International Olympic Committee. Rather, the findings were presented at a Dec. 7, 2004, committee meeting by researchers affiliated with the University Hospital Center in Lausanne, Switzerland.

We were unable to get in touch with researchers involved in that study for more details or updated figures, and the International Olympic Committee told us that it doesn’t track this kind of data.

The 769 figure, meanwhile, comes from an April 2022 segment on One America News Network, a conservative cable news service that in the past has shared problematic claims related to COVID-19. 

In the clip, reporter Pearson Sharp talked about how tennis players Jannik Sinner and Paula Badosa had to drop out of the Miami Open in 2021. Sharp then said the women were just two of "more than 769 athletes who have collapsed during a game on the field over the last year from March of 2021 to March of this year." However, Sinner and Badosa did not collapse during any match. Tennis officials confirmed that Sinner was suffering from foot blisters and Badosa had a viral illness at the time.

We reached out to Sharp about the data he used to get the figure. He told us the deaths and injuries were taken directly from headlines collected over the past year from around the world and sent several examples.

But PolitiFact — and others — have repeatedly investigated the incidents cited in these claims. The details of these episodes show that vaccines are neither causing athletes to collapse, nor are they connected to other sudden death episodes. 

A review of the articles Sharp sent over also showed that the reports aren’t consistent. Some cite medical professionals who ruled out vaccination as a cause. Others don’t include any information on the athlete’s vaccination status. And some were about athletes that neither collapsed nor experienced a cardiac event. 

One of the examples is Gilbert Kwemoi, a Gold medalist middle-distance runner from Kenya who collapsed in his home and died in August 2021. None of the reports about his death that we reviewed indicate whether he was vaccinated against COVID-19 or if it was a cardiac event that caused his death. His brother told news outlets that Kwemoi had developed an "illness" at a training camp.

Another is French soccer player Franck Berrier, who died of a heart attack in August 2021 while playing tennis. But Berrier, before the vaccines were on the market, had acknowledged that he had a heart condition.

Featured Fact-check

Berrier was quoted in 2019 to have said that his heart was only working "at 70%"

"There is no danger in day-to-day life," Berrier said, "but if I put too much strain on it there's the risk that blood won't be pumped in fast enough and I'll have a heart attack." 

Sharp cited stories about the deaths of Ahmed Amin, an Egyptian soccer player, and Avi Barot, an Indian cricketer. But they make no mention of whether the men received a vaccine, or what their causes of death were.

Sharp also pointed to the case of Kjeld Nuis, a Dutch speed skater. Nuis briefly developed pericarditis after receiving Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine but he didn’t collapse during any sporting event and he didn’t say whether his vaccination contributed to his heart problem or whether it was linked to his athletic activity. After experiencing some flu-like symptoms and chest pressure, Nuis said he was examined by his sports doctor and cardiologist. 

"Was immediately able to go the next day and after a heart film, ultrasound and an MRI. Everything seems to be fine! Now at training camp," the skater said on his Instagram page.

Another popular example in claims like the one on Instagram is the collapse of Danish soccer player Christian Eriksen. But Eriksen, according to his team director, wasn’t vaccinated for COVID-19 when he suffered cardiac arrest during a match in June 2021.

"To date, I am not aware of a single COVID vaccine-related cardiac complication in professional sports," Matthew Martinez, a sports cardiologist who works with the National Football League, National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and Major League Soccer and who is the director of sports cardiology at Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey told us in December. Martinez reaffirmed that observation when we reached out to him again in June.

The same goes for Jonathan Kim, an associate professor of medicine and chief of sports cardiology at Emory University in Atlanta. "I am not aware of any reports that vaccines in athletes are causing cardiac issues," he said. 

 
Vaccines don’t increase deaths

Studies and scientific reviews found no association between vaccination and deaths in anyone — adults or children — except in rare cases, according to a 2015 study. More recently, following the introduction of COVID-19 vaccines, a 2021 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found no increased risk for death among those vaccinated for COVID-19.

According to the Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndromes Foundation, SADS conditions are genetic heart issues that can cause sudden death in young, apparently healthy, people. 

Warning signs of SADS conditions include family history of sudden, unexplained death under age 40, fainting or seizure during exercise, excitement or startle, and consistent or unusual chest pain and/or shortness of breath during exercise, the SADS foundation said.

These conditions have been studied for decades, and the foundation told PolitiFact that there is "no evidence" suggesting that any of the COVID-19 vaccines cause people to develop SADS conditions, or make people’s conditions more severe.

Dr. Michael J. Ackerman, director of the Long QT Syndrome Clinic and professor of medicine, pediatrics and molecular pharmacology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine said there is not a "single signal" of increased SAD events among diagnosed and treated patients who’ve been vaccinated.

"Over two years into the pandemic, there’s been no indication in the largest programs in the world of an increase in death from these conditions," Ackerman said.

Our ruling 

An Instagram post claims that an average of 29 young athletes suffered sudden death per year from 1966 to 2004, while 769 athletes have died or suffered cardiac arrest from March 2021 to March 2022, suggesting the COVID-19 vaccines have caused a spike in sudden deaths. 

A study published in 2006 found that an average of 29 young athletes experienced sudden deaths over a nearly 40-year span, but there is no comparable study to weigh it against. The 769 figure is based on a collection of articles that incorporate reports of athlete deaths, cardiac arrest incidents and various incomplete anecdotes that didn’t involve any emergency medical episodes or have any confirmed connection to the vaccines. 

Studies and scientific reviews have found no association between vaccination and sudden deaths, and officials with the SADS foundation, as well as sports cardiologists, say there is no evidence that suggests any of the COVID-19 vaccines cause people to experience sudden death.

We rate this False.

Our Sources

Instagram post, June 20, 2022

The Epoch Times, The Latest Tragedy: Sudden Adult Death Syndrome, June 20, 2022

OANN, Hundreds Of Professional Athletes Collapsing On Field, Dying From Mysterious Heart Complications, April 10, 2022

European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, Sudden cardiac death in athletes: the Lausanne Recommendations, Dec. 1, 2006

IOC story about study At the IOC in Lausanne: consensus meeting on "Sudden Death in Athletes", Dec. 7, 2004 

PolitiFact, There’s no proof athletes collapsed with heart issues because of COVID-19 vaccination, Dec. 1, 2021 

PolitiFact, Vaccines are not linked to sudden death in any age group, April 6, 2022 

Associated Press, Miami Open withdrawals weren’t caused by COVID vaccine effects, April 15, 2022 

Washington Post, How the falsehood of athletes dying of coronavirus vaccines spread, Feb. 1, 2022 

Email interview, Anna Goodson communications director at the SADS Foundation, June 21-22, 2022

Email interview, Pearson Sharp reporter for OANN, June 21, 2022

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Claims connecting sudden death in athletes to COVID-19 vaccines fall short of scrutiny

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