Another treat from the wonderful Catherine Wilding, who in this post looks at the pattern of athletes and injuries, especially in the run-up to important championship competitions. But it really begs the question: are we all not susceptible to pushing too hard as the ‘big day’ approaches and tipping over from fit to broken…?
For many athletes, there is often a tale of adversity to accompany their success. It can be overcoming hardship, battling prejudice or just proving people wrong but more often than not, it’s overcoming career threatening injuries. The athlete’s journey is long and winding and often a lonely path filled with emotional highs and lows. It is beset with many obstacles but it is injury that is probably the most difficult. It takes years of dedication and determination to achieve recognition and before even making the start-line of major championships and tournaments, many athletes have endured months of painstaking re-habilitation from injuries and some just don’t even make it.
As runners, ours is a cruel sport. The longer the distance, the more likely we are to get injured and the list of injuries for long distance runners is almost as long as the races themselves. It’s a repetitive sport which is hard on the body and it is a lucky runner who escapes injury.
The London 2012 Olympic Games were a veritable catalogue of injuries. There are countless stories of athletes from almost every nation who were either not selected owing to injury; were forced to pull out before the games began; arrived at the start line not fully fit and carrying a niggle; or were injured during competition.
Our most famous distance runner of all time and World Record Holder – Paula Radcliffe – has a heartbreaking story and one we are all too familiar with. It’s been an eight year journey from Athens, via a stress fracture and a cruel and disappointing race in Beijing, to London 2012. But such is marathon running a challenging sport – Paula didn’t even make the start line in London. She was forced to pull out just one week before with a recurring foot injury and so her Olympic journey ended before it had begun.
Her compatriot Mara Yamauchi completed months of hard training to line up on the Mall on Sunday 5th August. But hers was a short-lived race and not the one she had trained for. She hadn’t quite made it to the 10K mark before she had to pull up with an injury to her heel which clearly wasn’t going to hold up. In the women’s marathon, the gun had only just gone off when one competitor had to be carried off the course. One of the favourites for the race – Shobhukova also pulled out with a hamstring injury. In the men’s marathon a week later, Ryan Hall of the USA was forced out after 10 miles also with a hamstring injury. He later said that he has never not finished a race, but felt it was something he couldn’t work through and the injury could do damage to his career. His fellow team make Abdirhman barely made it a mile further before also pulling up after feeling a “pop” in his knee. In fact 18 of the competitors didn’t make the finish line and will forever have the misery of seeing DNF next to their name in Olympic history.
That’s just the story of the marathon. The most remarkable injury to have been incurred during competition must be that of Manteo Mitchell the American sprinter in the men’s 4 x 400m relay. He heard his left fibula crack whilst running the first leg in the heats. In an extraordinary feat of mind over matter he continued running on a broken leg despite the pain. His rationale being that he didn’t want to let the team down. Team USA qualified for the final but Mitchell wasn’t able to help his team-mates take Silver. The Jamaican sprinter Asafa Powell also pulled up in the 100m final after pulling a thigh muscle. He limped across the line last but still managed to finish the race in 11.99 seconds.
Another heartbreaking story is that of China’s most famous athlete, the hurdler Liu Xiang. After crashing out of the Olympic final in Beijing in 2008, he was again carried off the track in a wheelchair at London 2012. An ongoing Achilles injury was to blame and after hitting the first hurdle in the 110m heats he ended yet another Olympic dream and promptly announced his retirement.
These are just a few stories from the runners. Almost everywhere we looked we saw the tell-tale sign of injury. KT tape (or Kineseology tape) was a ubiquitous and somewhat cult accessory at London 2012. Sported in every colour, Athletes use the tape to support injuries to shoulders, calves, hamstrings etc. In the women’s 10K, the favourite Dibaba had thick blue tape down her hamstring, wearing it like a badge perhaps to tell us that she wasn’t quite in her best shape.
But it’s not just the runners who get injured. Some sports are more deadly than others and injuries can be crushing. For the road cyclist it can quite literally be “one false move and your dead”. Travelling at speed is not the time to make a mistake as Fabian Cancellara the former Olympic Time Trial champion knows to his cost. He hit a barrier in Richmond Park and suffered a debilitating injury to his collar bone which all but ended his Olympic chances. The women’s road-race saw several crashes – none life threatening but ending medal chances for all those caught in the tangle.
The equestrian events are also no place to make mistakes. It’s the horse that is in charge and being thrown from the saddle can not only end ones medal hopes but also put an end to riding for months or even years. Team GB’s Nick Skelton has broken practically every bone in his body and suffered a near fatal neck injury in 2001, yet he managed to survive London 2012. After missing out on an individual medal in the show-jumping, he helped the team to ride away with Gold in the team event. Broken bones are not confined to cycling, riding (and even running). In the hockey, the Women’s Team GB captain played on despite suffering a broken jaw in the early rounds. She went on to captain the team to a Bronze medal.
Any athlete who has been injured knows that the recovery process and re-hab is fraught with difficulty – both physically and psychologically – which makes it even more remarkable that Team GB’s Alistair Brownlee – who, having suffered a tear to his Achilles as recently as February this year – was able to compete in the triathlon in Hyde Park. Not only did he make the start line fighting fit but he ran a blistering race to take the Gold medal and a very convincing victory.
Others arrived gallantly for the competition having battled injury yet weren’t able to perform. After weeks of speculation and controversy, Philips Idowu arrived only to crash out in the heats. Some put on a great performance having overcome injuries but missed weeks of crucial training. Our 1500m runner Lisa Dobriskey had a catalogue of injuries and illness, including surgery on her hip; a stress fracture in her femur, and a blood clot on her lung all in the space of a few months earlier this year. It was an incredible achievement just to make it to the final but she was disappointed to finish in 10th place. In the women’s triathlon, Helen Jenkins finished in 5th place despite not being fully fit having missed significant training in the preceding 10 weeks with a knee injury.
There are endless tales of disappointment and endless tears from athletes who have incurred injuries and not been able to fulfil their dreams.
We have to reflect and ask: How would the London 2012 Games have looked if Usain Bolt had not overcome his Achilles injury? Only 95% fit, he ran away with three gold medals and a legendary status but it could all have ended quite differently.