Kiwis revere sporting excellence – but at what physical cost?

by The Listener / 16 February, 2017
American footballer Tom Brady. Photo/Getty Images
The sport of rodeo is under heavy public and political criticism for its toll on animals, and there’s hell to pay when racehorses fall and must be destroyed.

Yet somehow it’s just seen as tough luck that two broken legs and an ankle ligament took out three players from Super Rugby in a single day last weekend. That followed news of the death of another Pasifika former All Black after suffering debilitating kidney disease. It raises fresh disturbing questions about whether our sporting pleasure is coming at too great a cost to athletes.

A giant Tongan on-field wrecking-ball, Sione Lauaki, like Jonah Lomu before him, was having dialysis treatment before his death. He was 35, Lomu 40. A third former rugby star, Joeli Vidiri, had years of ill health before receiving a kidney transplant in 2015. Mourning Lauaki, Vidiri said, “We need to go deeper to try to find out what is the cause.”

Clearly, although rugby is the direct cause of the Chiefs’ and tens players’ injuries last weekend, it does not cause kidney disease. But three Pasifika ­players with the same deadly ­degenerative condition is an ­unsettling coincidence. Rugby officialdom must, as Vidiri suggests, go deeper into the medical parameters of that coincidence. Bluntly, might the punishing demands of high-performance sport exacerbate health problems in those with certain genetic predispositions? Are some safe-seeming athletic supplements, such as creatine – under scrutiny for a possible effect on kidneys – best avoided by some athletes?

Equally, two broken legs in the one game is a concerning coincidence. To their credit, rugby administrators now withdraw players who receive head injuries, belatedly cognisant of the terrible long-term effects of multiple concussions. The game’s rules have been progressively adjusted to reduce injury risk. It’s impossible to make any fast-paced or contact sport safe – for amateurs or professionals. Physical danger is part of sport’s excitement.

Photo/Getty Images

All the same, the toll on rugby players does seen punishingly high. One issue is that some play nearly year-round. It’s also salutary to contrast the comparable sport of American football, whose players are helmeted and body-armoured against injury, and who are on the field for less game time. That prudential approach has been applied to sevens finals, shortened from 10 minutes a half to seven for most games to reduce injury.

Maybe, too, there’s more to learn from the unique ­training approach of American football star Tom Brady. At 39, he’s at the top of his game, injury-free and, he insists, pain-free, just days after his team’s Super Bowl win – all of which he puts down to his non-traditional conditioning regime and rigorous “anti-inflammatory” diet. The efficacy of the latter remains ­controversial, but Brady’s ­concentration on flexibility is starting to catch on elsewhere in the sport, where traditional strength and fast-twitch muscle training have been the priority.

In fairness, the All Blacks are among many elite athletes now using yoga, ballet, pilates and other gentler means to refine their strength and speed ­training. But Brady’s low-impact system appears quite simply kinder and more nurturing of the body. Although many remain sceptical of his new-agey personal trainer-cum-masseur, Brady’s concentration on muscle pliability through high-repetition resistance-band training, massage, meditation and stretching has demonstrably paid dividends and is fast gaining respect.

Other smarter ways are emerging to keep athletes resilient to physical and emotional wear, tear and stress.

The University of ­Auckland’s Liggins Institute this week poured cold water on a near-universal training staple, the ice bath. International trials it took part in found the treatment, long believed to reduce inflammation after hard play or training, has no anti-flam effect – and may, in fact, retard muscle growth. A physical warm-down is more beneficial.

There is also the question of the pastoral care owed to young athletes by their sporting codes. It behoves the sport to ensure they develop as adults as well as players. That includes helping them put realistic career and financial foundations in place for their post-sport future.

New Zealanders revere sporting excellence – but not at any cost. Athletes should not have to pay for career success with their health.

This article was first published in the February 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter. 

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