By PJ Cunningham
We are only getting around to the realisation that there will be a serious health fall-out for many of the men and women participating in modern sport.
Whether it is Gaelic games at the highest level, rugby or soccer, the advent of the new professionalism into all of these disciplines means more games, more hits, more demands to play when not totally fit and more chance of life-long ailments down the line.
I first put ‘two and two’ together on this front many years ago when a friend of mine visited Mikey Sheehy in hospital after surgery on his knees. Mikey, as you all know, was the outstanding player in Mick O’Dwyer’s amazing team of the seventies but needed this operation while still the right side of forty.
It is no wonder when you think about it. The man above issues us with one set of knees, ankles, hips, shoulders etc with the expectation that they will last for three score years and ten.
Kerry were arguably the first ‘professional’ Gaelic team in terms of training that the GAA ever saw. They were putting their bodies through super-human tests to acquire the edge in fitness – and only those who could stand up to such rigorous demands on their bodies got the opportunity to win All Ireland medals in this golden era for the Kingdom.
When asked about the cruciate problems to both knees and of needing new hips among other injuries, Sheehy said back in 2010: “It’s a small sacrifice… a tiny price. You can replace hips and knees.”
Having raised the bar, there was no choice for other teams but to follow suit. All that generation now are in their fifties to mid-sixties and many are paying the price of putting so much systematic pressure on their joints.
Former Meath great, Bernard Flynn, has had two hip operations and has a daily companion called pain to deal with since his early thirties yet he knows he is no different to dozens of others who won All Irelands – but at a price.
Rugby has taken on a seriously professional approach in Ireland since the turn of the century and it was informative to hear our greatest player, Brian O’Driscoll, last week talk of the amount of pain killers and anti-inflammatories he needed to get himself through games for the past few years of his pro career with Leinster and Ireland.
This pharmaceutical aids are not to be confused with drug cheats where athletes across sports go on a course of body-building, or using masking agents or injections to enhance their performances.
O’Driscoll was unveiling a new reality where many of the older rugby pros have to take a pill or two just so that can make it onto the pitch for a game.
His predecessor as Irish captain, Keith Woods, was prescient enough to give up sport in his early thirties because he feared the long-term effects on his body of playing on beyond that. A clever man for sure.
Soccer in the old First Division of England always had a handful of Irish stars with others playing down the leagues.
As a journalist covering their exploits in the seventies and eighties, you would hear of old pros complaining that they took too many cortisone injections so that they could turn out in a match where plainly they were not fit.
It masked the pain but long term left men with limps and body parts which were numb in later years.
In Gaelic, all county and many club teams are now training at a level no one ever envisaged would be the case a few decades ago. Because of the emphasis on physical fitness more than skill, the players are put through tough sessions both in the gym and on the field, resulting in more niggling injuries which require a pill or two just so they can play.
It’s a self-perpetuating sports soap opera where individuals are cashing in chips from their later life by taking Difene and co-codamol now without understanding or even thinking about the detrimental affect they will have on their body down the line.
The reason players or performers do what they do is that they want to play; they want to please their management and they want to please their supporters.
Years ago, a survey was done asking Olympians if they would be happy to win a gold medal even if the deal was they would die within 10 years of doing so? An overwhelming amount of the respondents said they would agree to such a swop.
Now obviously, GAA or rugby or soccer players would like to win medals but their reasons aren’t as dramatic – it’s just a sportsperson’s need to perform in the next stage available to them.
After the O’Driscoll interview on the independent radio station in Ireland, Newstalk, it was interesting to see the response of people like Leo Cullen, the current Leinster Head Coach, in saying that pill taking was less widespread now than even a few years ago.
There is no suggestion that what any of these people have or are doing is against any rules, but there is no doubt that the aggregate habit of taking Difene or pain-killers over a number of seasons has to leave a legacy for those who take them.
It is the duty of the sport and those in positions of authority to look after the welfare of the individuals who play for them.
That means there should be a chart for every player where every pill is documented – not for the sports sake, though that is important, but for the person who needs to understand that it is a Faustian pact of sorts to play today and suffer tomorrow.
God knows, there are so many people out there who can attest to this that it is now apposite that Sport Ireland should get the message across before others fall into the same trap.