Domhnall MacAuley: Fitness, beauty, rowing, and reality

Domhnall MacauleyA festival of fitness, athleticism, and aesthetic beauty – the world rowing championships. After a week watching some of the world’s top athletes, you begin to think everyone is tall, muscular, toned, and tanned. Only for mirrors you might believe you were one too. Very few fatties to be seen and only amongst the coaches or supporters (who won chocolate chip medals?). It was a nostalgic trip to an event in which I competed before most of these competitors were born. And, I wasn’t the only one. I saw many former athletes in their forties and fifties, (competitors in the  ’79 and ’89 World Champs at the same venue)  looking wistfully across the water at their past. Youth racing by.

A living moving gallery of beautifully sculpted men and women. A magical world untouched by the cruel brush of illness. Almost. For one can never escape. There was an outbreak of gastroenteritis in one of the hotels – some athletes succumbed and performed below expectation.  A minor drama to the outside world but a major event in this sporting microcosm. There were athletes competing while recovering from injury and a few not quite making it in time. There was at least one fairytale return – Fiona Patterson, a New Zealand athlete was competing after recovery from cancer and chemotherapy. And, as the adaptive rowers took their place on the medal winners’ podium the spectators applause clearly recognised their particular achievements. And, who can imagine the psychological burden that one German rower will carry for the rest of his life – he caught a crab (his oar stuck in the water) in the very last stroke of a closely fought tussle costing his crew the gold medal by inches. He was distraught.

It was an extraordinary escape from the sick, the sedentary, and the smokers. But, on Monday morning, the real world reclaimed the village. Tourists of all shapes and sizes wandered back into town. The dream ended and normal life with all its imperfections was visible again. Sport, in spite of  its beauty, was a glorious irrelevance.

Domhnall MacAuley is primary care editor, BMJ