Domhnall MacAuley on rowing glory and cruel irony

Domhnall MacauleyThey asked me to go on the radio. Andy Holmes, double Olympic gold medallist rower had just died of Leptospirosis. After a long break away from the sport, he returned two years ago and, it seems, he caught the disease through his renewed contact with the sport. It is relatively rare, with just 40 cases per annum in the UK, and is more of a hazard for agricultural and sewerage workers than rowers, but rowing organisations recognise the risk and provide information on their websites. He was very unfortunate, and I only know of one other case associated with rowing, and that was many years ago. Andy was part of the four that won Olympic gold in Los Angeles, powering through the mist on Lake Casitas to overcome the Americans and herald a new era in British rowing. He went on to win gold again with Steve Redgrave in Seoul. I knew Andy briefly when I was team doctor on pre Olympic training camp earlier that year. Even then, I sensed he found the intensity a little claustrophobic and it didn’t surprise me when he took an extended break  from the sport. But rowing can be addictive and few ever completely escape – there  is something compelling about that mix of shared ambition, physical endeavour and, aesthetic pleasure. He went back to the sport that had consumed so much of his youth, and it finally took his life at age 51.

Others in that Olympic four are linked to the world of medicine. Steve Redgrave, fives times Olympic gold medallist, struggled with diabetes in the latter part of his career. Martin Cross, one of the most dedicated and determined of British rowers, battled with his own psychological demons, vividly described in his autobiography “Sporting Obsession.”  Happily the fourth oarsman in the crew has had a more successful link with medicine: Richard Budgett, with a background in general practice, sports medicine clinical practice and research, is Chief Medical Officer for the 2012 Olympic Games. We (the Northern Ireland squad) raced them once (minus Richard Budgett), when rowing was last a formal part of the Commonwealth games. It was a privilege, as sporting minnows to line up against the Olympic Champions and we were absolutely dead level…at the start. We never saw them again but it didn’t matter. It was enough to compete.

Sporting glory is fleeting. Champions die too. Having been away from the sport so long,  Andy Holmes’ s death had a cruel irony.

Domhnall Macauley is primary care editor, BMJ