Five former champion jumps jockeys, including Anthony McCoy and Richard Dunwoody, have enrolled in a ground-breaking research project examining the long-term impact of concussion in sport.
The study, Concussion in Sport, will investigate the correlation between those in sport that are susceptible to receiving blows to the head and long-term damage to the brain.
Concussion in Sport’s screening process will initially focus on more than 200 retired jockeys from Europe, including McCoy, Dunwoody and fellow former National Hunt champions Peter Scudamore, John Francome and Stan Mellor.
The study will then extend to sports such as boxing, rugby and football in which concussion is recognised as a significant risk.
Dunwoody, a three-times champion jumps rider who retired in 1999 with a neck injury, said: “As professional jockeys, with on average a fall every 14 rides, it was accepted that we would suffer concussion.
“But we gave little thought as to what the long-term effects of repetitive head injuries would be, so this is an important research project, not only for racing, but for all sports.
“It will be of great benefit to establish the facts regarding the effects of concussion and to be able to minimise risks for athletes in the future.”
But when asked if former riders are beginning to show long-term effects of having repeatedly sustained concussion, Dunwoody told BBC Radio 4: “I don’t think so – we certainly wouldn’t find it amongst older jockeys as yet.”
Concussion in Sport will invite retired sportsmen and sportswomen to help its research by completing an online questionnaire every year for at least the next four years.
The study is also keen to form a “control group” of similar-aged members of the public who have never suffered concussion.
Concussion in Sport is the trading name of the International Concussion and Head Injury Research Foundation (ICHIRF), a non-profit organisation that works collaboratively with research projects in Australia, Switzerland and the USA.
The ICHIRF receives support and funding from various global sources, including the NFL, the Injured Jockeys Association and Godolphin, the powerful racing operation owned by the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed.
Dr Michael Turner, the former chief medical adviser to the British Horseracing Authority who is now in the same position with the Lawn Tennis Association, founded the ICHIRF in 2014 and will lead the study.
He said: “For the first time, a state-of-the-art, controlled, multi-sport research study will look exclusively at concussion in European sportsmen and women, starting with a detailed study of over 200 former jockeys.
“Through impartial, objective analysis of a significant pool of data, we will seek to establish whether there is any correlation between repeated concussion and long-term damage to the brain.
“What we are looking at here is to give people a decent risk analysis.”
The project has received the support of former boxing world champion Barry McGuigan and England World Cup-winning rugby union boss Sir Clive Woodward.
Woodward said: “Concussion has now become a major concern for all contact sports.
“Only through high-quality, independent research can we uncover the true facts surrounding this complicated condition.”
McGuigan said: “I very much welcome this initiative.
“In boxing we accept the challenge of concussion and this research will help us to deal with it.”
The Professional Footballers’ Association also welcomed the study.
PFA deputy chief executive John Bramhall said: “The safety and well-being of both our current and former members is one of the fundamental objectives of the PFA and we consider this research to be an important step in helping to achieve this objective.
“This research focusing on concussion and evaluating the long-term effects of repeated head traumas on participants in contact sports will hopefully enable current injury management systems for such injuries to be further improved.”
A British Horseracing Authority review is being conducted in association with the Professional Jockeys Association and will look at racecourse assessment and treatment practices as well as return-to-riding protocols, while also focusing on education about the importance of concussion management.
Dr Jerry Hill, chief medical adviser for the BHA, said: “Racing has, for many years, been recognised as being ahead of the curve when it comes to concussion management, however we cannot be complacent.
“We are a sport that carries an above average risk of concussion and as science develops so must our policies towards its diagnosis, treatment and care.
“For this reason we are currently reviewing our concussion protocols to ensure they remain amongst the most comprehensive and rigorous in British and world sport.
“This review will focus not only on the day-to-day treatment of concussion, but also, crucially, the education of our participants about the importance of managing concussion properly.
“We need to ensure that everyone within the sport is aware of the signs of concussion and also the risks associated with competing while suffering from concussion.
“One of the risks associated with repeated concussion may be an impact on health in later life, however the existing medical science is not definitive on this point.
“This is why the Concussion in Sport project is extremely important, not only for those involved in horseracing but indeed all sportsmen and women.
“We look forward to working with Dr Turner and his team on this project.”