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.