Domhnall MacAuley: Some Olympic reflections

Domhnall MacauleyIt’s the smile that gives it away. The Olympic smile. Couch potatoes, academic nerds, fashionistas, computer geeks, and sporty types united. All bewitched. With life on hold for the last two weeks, its now back to the real world, but almost everyone one seems touched by a little bit of Olympic magic. So, what about the Olympic legacy—a few random reflections.

What if your life had been on hold, not just for two weeks but, for the last ten years and everything directed towards your Olympic performance? Gold medallists achieved their goal but few will make sufficient money to cushion the lives. Many will face a future they had not ever considered. The calendar stopped in August 2012. How do you cope when your life has been focused on one moment in time? Or when you return to a workforce where your contemporaries are ten years ahead in their career. Your greatest achievement is in your twenties—in your past. Will the rest of your life always be a disappointment?

The Olympics raised other interesting questions. What is the relative influence of nature and nurture, genes and environment, opportunity and talent. Television discussion focused on the success of sprinters of West African origin. Some suggested historical accelerated natural selection.  But, if 30,000 people, from a population of 2.5m, turn up for the school sports championships on the tiny Caribbean island of Jamaica, then everyone will want to be a sprinter. And, what about the success of East African runners in distant events? It cannot all be down to the coaching of Brother Colm at St Patricks High School in Iten, who inspired a generation of endurance stars.  Even Mo Farah’s origins are geographically not that far away.

Some performances were unbelievable. Sadly, experience tells us that sometimes the purity of the exceptional performance may indeed be beyond belief. There have been a few positive tests but, it often takes a long time for suspicions to surface. We can have absolute confidence in the testing but hindsight may show that we tested for the wrong substances or at the wrong time. Should we believe Victor Conte when he tells us that 60% of athletes were using banned drugs? Genetic engineering, undetectable medication, some uncomfortable asides, but little concrete evidence. Our enjoyment of the games has not yet been tainted. Only time will tell.

Will the public health legacy last longer than the feel good factor? Will there be investment in sports medicine with employment opportunities for those who recently completed or are still in professional training?

But, the most intriguing question of all—why do the winners bite their medals?

Domhnall MacAuley is primary care editor, BMJ