The possible price of heroism

THERE is fine line between heroism and lunacy, and it is a line as fine as the tip of hypodermic.


Anil Kumble, bowling bravely with a fractured jaw in the West Indies last year, seemed to almost typify the distance he was willing to go for his flag.-V. V. KRISHNAN

THERE is fine line between heroism and lunacy, and it is a line as fine as the tip of hypodermic. As common these days as needling the opposition is poking oneself with a syringe. Enter any sports team room, and be sure you will find a coach's whistle, a blackboard for tactics, ice vests, and also a small medical kit with vials and a needle. Inject and play, after all, is one of the oldest mantras in sport.

Inside those vials are not performance-enhancing drugs, but something legal, though occasionally dangerous: the local anaesthetic, the pain-killer, the deadener, the elixir that allows an injured athlete the luxury of playing without feeling.

If athletes had to wait for their bodies to stop paining to play, most never would. From aching shoulders, to swollen knee joints, from cracked hands to throbbing feet, athletes are constantly on the go though their bodies are crying `stop'. Pain becomes just another opponent to defeat, to be borne stoically and without complaint.

But taking anaesthetics to carry on is a quick-fix measure not a solution. Pain can be obscured but it does not always contain the damage. As an old, possibly apocryphal, story goes, Diego Maradona, who was treated like a tackling dummy by defenders, was once told by a doctor that he had the knees of a 60-year-old man. But he was in his 20s! Last fortnight, possibly the biggest event in the Australian sporting calendar, the Australian Rules football finals, occurred. Aussie Rules, or footy, is game with a powerful core of violence, a game of high-speed collisions and extraordinary physical stress, where injury is not an "if" but a "when".

The winning team, for the third year in a row, was the Brisbane Lions, whose coach post-match actually kidded that his team used so many vials of anaesthetic (18) that there must have been a shortage of pain-killers in Australia. A professional team, no doubt with excellent doctors, had made a studied, good-faith decision and it does no good to second guess them. But a few days later, the Australian Medical Association asked the governing body of footy to review its policy on pain-killers.

What caught the attention was not the player with the broken hand who played (I don't run on my hands, the player said), or the one with the gimpy knee, or the one with the damaged wrist, but the player who had a broken rib, who took injections, but was found after the match to have a punctured lung. Bleeding for your team (a broken nose, a split lip) is one thing, coughing up blood for it seems an entirely different matter.

Diego Maradona, who was treated like a tackling dummy by defenders, was once told by a doctor that he had the knees of a 60-year-old man. But he was in his 20s!-GETTY IMAGES

Drawing the line between brave and stupid, knowing where to stop, is a complicated business. Athletes, injured or not, want to play, it is what they do. When the game in question is a final, the desire to be on the field is greater. They spend the entire season striving for success, and are loath not to be there for the final reckoning.

The World Cup in cricket, for instance, is the game's holy grail of sorts, it is what players like Sachin Tendulkar live for. He revealed in a recent interview with India Today that when his hand hurt in New Zealand, prior to the cup, he took pain-killing injections. When the pain persisted, and he saw a doctor, he sensibly decided to discontinue the injections, saying: "We decided that in any case the injections had not worked and it was only damaging the finger further. The option was to live with whatever the pain was there." Eventually he had an operation, but played bravely through the cup.

Tendulkar is wise, he has a healthy respect and understanding of his body, but that is not always the case with others. Tendulkar, and the cricket team, has the able Andrew Leipus to guide them, but who knows what the situation is with other Indian teams.

Officials may say that they advise athletes on the consequences but leave the final decision when it comes to injections to them, but that in some ways is a cop-out. Athletes, keen to advance their careers and take their opportunities for success, are not able, always, to objectively weigh the consequences. Furthermore, most sports have a certain honour code, an in-built machismo, wherein an inability to endure pain, or a refusal to risk all for the team, is occasionally seen as wimpish.

Another footy player, now retired, admitted he took up to six injections in his knee before games, and even endured pain-killing injections to train. It is bravery, but in some senses foolishness, and can send a dangerous message.

If you watch films like Any Given Sunday, or Varsity Blues on American football, it appears that teams occasionally push their players more than is sensible, doing whatever it takes to get injured players ready to play. How far fact is removed from such fiction is hard to tell.

Perhaps like always, we return to the defining question in sport: how important is winning? And should victory outweigh the risk of serious injury? Surely not. Medical staff are honourable, and it is no easy job balancing the players' welfare with the knowledge that their very job is to get injured athletes back on the pitch as soon as possible.

It is a fine line, for as a player watches the needle slide into his knee, and finds he can run again without pain he may well think he has found some magical formula. But 20 years later, he may be hobbling around on artificial knees, and suddenly those victories could be eking a terrible price.