By Dr Dinesh Sirisena
Sport and Exercise Medicine: The UK trainee perspective (A twice-monthly Guest Blog)
Billed by the official television broadcaster as the main event following the Olympic Games ‘warm-up’, the Paralympics have surpassed all expectations and will undoubtedly change perceptions of disability sport in Great Britain. For most, it has been an awakening as to what these athletes can achieve.
Working at the games
Having worked at both the Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer, I gained insights into the international sporting events. While both were enjoyable, the Paralympics have been somewhat humbling. Especially when witnessing some of the adversities that the athletes have overcome in their bid to become champions.
Based at the Olympic stadium during the Paralympic Games, I was exposed to challenges different to those at other multi-sport athletics events. With the variety of track and field competitions occurring simultaneously, one is always conscious of giving all events equal attention. This is challenging at best, but with additional functional impairments and variations within each category, these athletes were at greater risk of injury compared to able-bodied athletes. Where this was particularly evident was during the F11/12 (visually impaired) triple jump event; unable to visualize where they were aiming, athletes would veer across the track and land dangerously close to the edge of the sandpit. Additionally, athletes in the T31-38 events (cerebral palsy) could have quite variable degrees of disability. For some, simply completing the race was an achievement.
From the field of play perspective, it meant planning and rehearsing moulages to ensure our skills were kept sharp and that we worked seamlessly within the team. Inventing worst-case scenarios, such as wheelchair crashes and extracting seated athletes, kept the training challenging and meant we were confident to deal with any situation.
In addition to the sport, I was privileged to be present at the opening and closing ceremonies. Uninitiated in Paralympic ceremonies, it was particularly unnerving when fire and water hazards were mixed in with Paralympians and dancers somersaulting through the air. Although it meant little respite for the medical team, it was a true spectacle and was memorable for all.
With the catchphrase “inspire a generation”, for some, the 2012 Games will do exactly that. Built on the pledge that sport can inspire, change and improve lives, an NHS document in 2009 stated that the Games would change health beliefs and practices by targeting unhealthy behavior and reducing levels of physical inactivity in London and indeed nationwide.
An additional objective was to inspire the next generation of athletes. By introducing families to sports, the Games brought to the limelight those events that are infrequently televised and made them centre-stage, seeding ideas for our future athletes.
Whether these ambitions will materialize depends on numerous factors beyond our control as doctors. Nevertheless, many of my patients have witnessed the Paralympics and I will endeavor to build on this interest and enthusiasm towards sport, encouraging people to be more active in their daily routines. Whether it will involve taking up a new sport or simply considering cycling to the station instead of taking the bus, I am optimistic that the Paralympics were a step in the right direction.
Irrespective of the legacy ambitions, the Paralympics showed us what can be achieved despite adversity. With personal sacrifice and self-belief, these athletes have brought their individuality and sport to the forefront of our consciousness, leaving little doubt that they are indeed elite sports people and not simply individuals with a disability.
Dr Dinesh Sirisena is a Sport and Exercise Medicine Registrar in London. He is an Honorary Clinical Lecturer at Bart’s and the London Medical School and is Team Doctor at AFC Wimbledon.
Dr James Thing co-ordinates “Sport and Exercise Medicine: The UK trainee perspective” monthly blog series.