Modern sport: 'a freak show with accidents'

A footballer retires after battling with injury. New figures show the dangers of playing rugby. And London gears up for the Olympics. How healthy are top athletes really?

Three big sports stories hit the headlines yesterday: exciting, sad and horrifying in the following order.

(i) The Olympic Games schedule was unveiled – 17 days of 'the greatest show on earth' taking place next summer in London. (ii) Ronaldo, the great Brazilian striker, quit football at the age of 34. (iii) The annual Premiership Rugby injury statistics were released: 636 injuries or an average of 1.6 injuries per match.

Three stories but one question: are great athletes healthy? It is not just rugby where the chances of injury are astronomically high. Many other professional sports have high risks – American football, basketball, boxing, to name a few.

Ronaldo retired because of his knees. He was described yesterday as 'visibly unfit and beset with injuries.' His parting quote was sad: 'I can't take it any more. I wanted to carry on but I can't. I plan a move in a game but I cannot execute it as I wish. The time is up.' This is one of the greatest athletes in the world who scored more than 400 goals, including a record 15 at World Cups.

And the Olympics? Their Latin motto means 'Faster, Higher, Stronger.' However in order to be faster, higher or stronger than the competition, many Olympians have resorted to cheating. Record-breaking sprinter Ben Johnson lost his 1987 gold medal after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs.

His trainer says nearly all athletes were taking steroids at the time.

One sports writer Matt Monaghan says top athletes are freaks: 'They almost don't even seem human when viewed up close. They struck the chromosomal lottery. Their embryonic whirlpool spun like a Vegas slot machine and came up 777.'

The freak theory is supported by science. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has flipper-like feet: size 14 monsters that are as flexible as a ballerina's. Andy Roddick, who has tennis' fastest serve, can arch his back 44% farther than the average pro. While it takes a normal person 300 milliseconds to make a reactive decision, the average racing driver is able to react in 270 milliseconds. The cyclist Lance Armstrong's heart is 20% larger than a normal person's.

Fit or healthy?
Great athletes, of course, are super fit. But are they healthy? Chemicals are not healthy. Injuries are not healthy. And even the greatest athletic careers can end in pain and disappointment.

A common medical definition of 'health' is 'a state of physical, mental and social wellbeing.' An athlete's life – high stress, high risk, high pressure – may not fit the bill.

You Decide

  1. Would you endure danger and painful injuries to become a top sportsperson? Why?
  2. 'Most spectators watch racing not for the winners but for the crashes' – does danger make sport exciting?

Activities

  1. What does health mean to you? Design a poster showing the key ingredients for a healthy lifestyle. Remember there's more to health than physical fitness.
  2. Modern sports may be dangerous but ancient sports were much worse. Do some research into chariot racing, gladiatorial combat or any other ancient sport. Report to your class on your findings.

Some People Say...

“I'd rather risk injuries than be a couch potato.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is this a new debate?
Not at all. 100 years ago the British Medical Journal was pondering the same question.
What were their conclusions?
They were concerned. 'Training of muscle, displays of bodily strength, and violent competitions for prizes and applause,' they said, 'make it an anxious matter to determine whether the life of the athlete is conducive to health. We have very little hesitation in answering this question in the negative.'
So is sport unhealthy?
Not if you listen to your body. Most long-term injury is caused by repetitive stress of an area of the body. When it begins to hurt, remember RICE.A A common way of treating and managing sports injuries: R – immediate Rest; I – Ice to reduce swelling; C – Compression using bandage; E – Elevation of injured area. Simples!

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