Why Foe was the latest in a long line of needless fatalities


death in sport is one too many. But when the lives of athletes are being

cut short from a cause that could be avoided it is tragedy in its most

real sense. Sudden Death Syndrome (SDS), the result of heart

abnormalities, kills eight young people a week in the UK, most of them

seemingly fit and many actively involved in sport.


examinations have revealed that Marc-Vivien Foé was the latest victim of

the condition that is responsible for a growing death toll of sporting


John Marshall, a junior

international footballer of the year, died when he was 16 on the day he

was due to sign for Everton; Laura Moss was on the swimming squad for

Sydney when she suffered a cardiac arrest at 13; Adrian Hawkins, 22, was

on the short list for a place in Britain’s cycling team at the Barcelona

Olympics when he collapsed after a race; and Daniel Yorath, son of Terry,

was 15 when he suffered SDS shortly after signing for Leeds United.

It makes depressing

reading, but so the list goes on. What it does provide, one would assume,

is more than enough evidence to support a campaign launched by the charity

CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young) which aims to make heart screening

mandatory in top-level sport.

Although it does not

cause SDS, sport can trigger it; the strain placed on the heart during

intense physical activity often proves too much when there is an

underlying problem with a thickened heart muscle or irregular heartbeat.

In the next five years CRY wants testing for the syndrome introduced to

elite youth squads and top individuals aged 16 and under in all sports.

Eventually it hopes

cardiac examinations will be made part of the government’s national

screening programme for young people.

It is not as if we lack

the means. Britain now has the only dedicated sports cardiology testing

centre in the world at the Olympic Medical Institute in Northwick Park

hospital, Harrow. Funded by CRY and coordinated by the exercise

physiologist Dr Greg Whyte, it offers comprehensive scanning with a range

of medical equipment that can determine whether or not someone is at risk.

There are also mobile screening units providing the same service which can

be transported to clubs and training grounds. But so far the services have

been woefully under-used.

Despite having such

top-notch facilities and experts at their disposal, most governing bodies

seem reluctant to employ them. A few do offer sporadic screening to

selected squads but in typical piecemeal fashion. UK Athletics says it

might refer an athlete if they have a history of heart problems in their

family or if they display any recognisable symptoms.

In 2002, following the

deaths of several young players, an editorial in Cricket World called for

heart screening to be made available to all young cricketers. So far,

nothing. Only the Football Association, which carries out its own cardiac

tests on 16-year-old youth trainees at all professional clubs, and the

Lawn Tennis Association which works with CRY to screen all top players

have instigated anything like acceptable measures.

How different things are

elsewhere. Most states in America operate some form of cardiac assessment

for young athletes either at high school or university level. In Italy

statistical data on cardiac-related deaths in athletes published a few

years ago was considered convincing enough for mandatory testing to be

introduced across the board in all sports. Now anyone representing the

country must undergo heart screening and be issued with a fitness

certificate before they are allowed to compete in Italian colours.

Cardiologists are also

integral members of the medical team at most Italian football clubs, an

approach which has paid off on more than one occasion. Last week

Internazionale’s heart specialists reported they had found serious

problems in their assessment of the Senegalese signing Khalilou Fadiga.

Here cardiac testing is

still considered a luxury. CRY subsidises the cost of screening so that it

costs sports bodies no more than £200 per athlete. If that is too high a

price to pay for saving a life then somewhere our approach to caring for

young talent has gone terribly wrong.