A former Olympic bobsledder who killed himself last year had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., researchers concluded, the same degenerative brain disease that has been found in former football players and other athletes who participated in violent contact sports.
Pavle Jovanovic hanged himself in his family’s metal works shop in central New Jersey in May 2020. He was 43. He is believed to be the first bobsledder and the first athlete in an Olympic sliding sport to be found with C.T.E. The debilitating brain disease results from multiple head traumas and can cause severe brain degeneration, often long before the stage of life when the wider population experiences brain disorders, such as dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
The finding of C.T.E. in Jovanovic’s brain is likely to send shock waves through a sport that is just beginning to understand the dangers of what participants refer to casually as “sled head.” Athletes have long used the term to describe the exhausted fog, dizziness and headaches that even a routine run can cause.
Jovanovic was the third elite North American bobsledder to kill himself since 2013. In recent years, an increasing number of current and retired athletes in sliding sports, especially bobsled and skeleton, have said they suffer chronically from many of the same symptoms that plague football players and other contact sport athletes. They deal with constant headaches, a heightened sensitivity to bright lights and loud noises, forgetfulness and psychological problems.
Jovanovic ran track and played football in high school and saw limited action during two seasons of college football, but he stopped attending Rutgers University full time in 1997 to pursue bobsledding. He spent roughly a decade competing internationally in bobsled, a sport that requires athletes to careen down an ice track at 80 miles an hour and endure a brain rattling experience that researchers have compared with shaken baby syndrome.
Catastrophic crashes causing athletes to slam into the ice underneath overturned sleds are not uncommon. But a combination of speed and vibrations, especially in the tight turns of a sliding track, can damage the brain even when crashes do not occur, experts say.
The C.T.E. finding was made in March by Dr. Ann McKee, a leading neuropathologist and the director of Boston University’s C.T.E. Center, who has discovered the disease in the donated brains of scores of deceased football players. For now, C.T.E. can be diagnosed only posthumously. In Jovanovic’s case, she was only able to study a small sample of the brain but it was enough to indicate “moderate disease,” McKee wrote.
A finding of moderate disease is similar to that of the former N.F.L. players Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and Aaron Hernandez, who all died by suicide.
“This does not give me closure, but it gives me an understanding of who my brother was and who he became, and that was someone else,” said Nick Jovanovic, Pavle’s older brother.
Jovanovic pushed sleds that excelled in World Cup competitions and represented the United States at the 2006 Olympics. At the time of his death, he had several years of treatment for psychiatric disorders, addiction, and symptoms including uncontrollable twitching and shaking akin to Parkinson’s disease.
Degenerative brain problems and their debilitating effects have become an increasingly open secret within the tight-knit world of bobsled and its sister sport, skeleton, in which competitors slide headfirst on small sleds made of metal and carbon fiber.
Aside from Jovanovic, Adam Wood, whose wife taped his anguished calls as his mental health deteriorated, so there would be a record, died by suicide in 2013 at age 32. The following year, Travis Bell, who competed for the United States in the late 1990s, took his life at age 42.
In addition, Steven Holcomb, who in 2010 piloted the sled known as the Night Train to the first gold medal for the United States in bobsled in 62 years, died alone of an overdose in 2017 after years of battling depression. He was 37. Another Olympic medalist, Bill Schuffenhauer, attempted suicide in 2016 by slitting his wrist, but was saved by his girlfriend.
Holcomb, the most famous American bobsledder, had arranged to have his brain donated to scientific study and told close friends that he might be suffering from C.T.E. But researchers did not find the disease when they dissected his brain. They also did not find C.T.E. in the brain of Adam Wood.
The lack of a C.T.E. finding does not mean that an athlete in a sport with high-speed collisions is not suffering from symptoms caused by repeated traumatic impacts to the brain and concussions, Dr. Robert Stern, a neuropsychologist and the director of clinical research for Boston University’s C.T.E. Center, said in an interview last year.
In sliding sports, researchers say much of the damage may occur throughout even a routine ride.
Nick Jovanovic has said Pavle began shaking and twitching uncontrollably in the middle of the night as long ago as 2013. He had only recently stopped competing in bobsled. After injuries prevented him from making the U.S. team in the 2010 Olympics, Jovanovic competed in 2011 and 2012 for Serbia, the country his father had immigrated from as a young man.
The next seven years were painful for Jovanovic and everyone around him. Despite having a degree in engineering from Rutgers that he earned in 2010, Jovanovic slowly lost the ability to do simple mathematical calculations in his head.
He drank heavily and grew moody. He got in fights in local bars and restaurants near his home in Toms River, N.J., and even attacked his brother at their steel fabrication office. Local police accumulated a lengthy file of complaints about him.
He did a series of stints at a mental health center, where he was treated for alcoholism, depression and bipolar disorder. At the time of his death, he was taking prescription medications to treat his mental health problems as well as the shakes and tremors that people with Parkinson’s or who are taking antipsychotic medications often experience.
“He wanted to win,” Nick Jovanovic said, “and he lost everything.”