Team Ireland’s chief medical officer Dr Rod McLoughlin will be on high alert over the coming weeks in Rio, writes Brendan O’Brien.
The ExCel. Cian O’Connor’s bronze. Rob Heffernan’s punishing fourth in the 50km walk that would ultimately earn Ireland another bronze with the confirmation four months ago that Sergey Kiryapkin’s gold had been stripped for doping offences.
Yep, London was the Olympics that just kept on giving but the successes of a handful of athletes tend to mask over the stories of those whose Olympic dreams curdled under the spotlight, and not always as a result of something as explicable as poor performances.
For every Katie Taylor at the ExCel Arena, there was an Eoin Rheinisch at the Lee Valley White Water Centre. Three seconds away from bronze in Beijing in 2008, Rheinisch’s hopes were undone four years ago by a freak incident when his canoe hit the bottom of the K-1 course.
Propelled off line by the unexpected course of events. The Kildare man missed the 19th gate in the semi-finals and incurred a 50-second penalty that doomed his challenge and spelled the end of an Olympic career that had begun in Athens eight years earlier.
The Games are full of thwarted ambitions and injury is often the cause.
Ciaran Ó Lionaird had his 1,500m hopes undone in London by a long-standing Achilles injury. He compared it to “like running on a flat tyre” and his honest and raw interview afterwards was compulsive if difficult viewing. Paul Hession had similar issues in the 200m even if he refused to lean on his troublesome Achilles as a means of explaining his failure to make it through his heat. Other debilitating issues are impossible to brush over and it was illness that struck the swimmers.
Grainne Murphy endured a turbulent time in the waters of the Acquatic Centre in the Olympic Park due to a bout of glandular fever that first struck the previous March while gastroenteritis did for Melanie Nocher in the same meet.
Bad timing, certainly, but not unusual.
The irony is that athletes are rarely more susceptible to injury and illness than when they reach a physical peak for major events such as the Olympics.
Who can forget Sonia O’Sullivan’s torment at the Atlanta Games 20 years ago, when stomach issues struck before the 5,000m final?
That still ranks as the most infamous example of an Irish Olympian being undone by illness but preventative measures have improved since and not just because soon-to-be Olympians wrap themselves in the proverbial cotton wool in the days and weeks beforehand.
“A lot of this is about doing the basics well,” says Dr Rod McLoughlin who is chief medical officer for Team Ireland in Rio. “If you practise good hand hygiene, wash your hands regularly before meals and after meals and after the toilet, you cut your risk of an infection by about a half and the risk of diarrhoea and vomiting by a third.
“It is the single best thing you can do. That is something we have drilled into our athletes the last number of years. The other thing is ‘catch it, bin it, kill it’. If you cough into a hankie, you throw it into a bin, and wash your hands. You don’t stick it in your pocket. It is, I’m afraid, boring but it is about doing the basics well.”
Rio, of course, offers further dangers. How dangerous is still being debated.
Different athletes have taken very different stances on the zika virus. Megan Kalmoe, an American sailor, has vowed to “row through shit” in Rio while a number of golfers, some living in Florida where the virus has already spread, have used the mosquito to cry off.
Irish athletes have been advised to use contraception, or to avoid sex altogether, for a period before, during, and after the Games in order to minimalise the risks associated with the virus, but common sense and perspective have been heavily prescribed as well.
“In terms of zika, our belief is that if people follow the guidance that is being given, the risk to them is negligible,” says Dr McLoughlin. “Just to put it in perspective, 80% of people who get zika don’t even know they ever had it. 20% get an illness that lasts two to seven days.”
Little else is overlooked.
The rather benign winter weather conditions in Rio aren’t expected to be a major factor in an age when athletes are accustomed to training and competing all over the world, but the fact is that something like sunburn can have a disastrous effect on an elite athlete.
Elite performance can be impaired when as little as 1% or 2% of the body is burned and Dr Giles Warrington of the Olympic Council of Ireland has forced that point home by showing athletes pictures of Beijing locals using umbrellas during the 2008 Games when the skies were overcast.
The message is clear: you simply cannot be too careful.
Thankfully, there seems to have been no issue with sunburn for Irish athletes in Beijing or London and elite sportspeople have long become equally au fait with the need to monitor their training loads on a daily basis with the help of the Institute of Irish Sport.
The length and perceived difficulty of every training session is recorded and the ‘less is more’ mantra has long been embraced by the sector’s elite coaches and athletes as major events approach and the tapering process kicks in.
Other factors aren’t so easily tracked and altered.
Stress is an obvious one.
“That adds to the load so, yes, we have athletes who are more prone potentially than others to not necessarily infections but symptoms similar to infections,” says Dr McLoughlin. “They may get a sore throat even though they are not infected but even that can impair the performance. That’s why the hand hygiene is important.
“That’s why load monitoring is important. That’s why keeping an eye on things like their quality of sleep, their muscle soreness, their appetite or mood is important because they may be early signs that their loads are too much. And it’s not just about load. You could have the perfect load, monitored it well and taken the inappropriate nutrition. So it is all these things.”
It’s true what they say: getting to the start line in the Olympics is an achievement in itself.
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