Moving with the times: Medical professionals in sport


Sport has changed a great deal in the past half century. Technological advancements and increased research in sports science have transformed the way people perceive and participate in sport and physical recreation.

Nowadays, in most developed countries, it is a fact that the higher you go up the ranks, in terms of sport performance, the greater the use of sports science and medicine. Even some developing countries such as Cuba have been able to harness the power of sports science and sports medicine to improve the performances of their athletes and teams, with devastating effects on their rivals.

However, for sport scientists and medical professionals to be useful and relevant to Southern African sport, their expertise must be duly appreciated, recognized and respected. 

Enabling environments must be created to entice these specialists to provide much needed services, either as volunteers or as paid consultants, as and when the need arises.

In some cases, sport scientists and medical professionals are actually eager to assist but sometimes are put off by petty politics, disorganisation and lack of seriousness on the part of sports administrators and leaders. However, for sport to be developed in a comprehensive manner, sport scientists and medical professionals must be involved in the technical aspects of sport.

Resources must be mobilised and allocated to sport scientists and medical professionals for them to undertake critical research and development activities on various athletes and teams. 

Without systematic research into performances of Southern African athletes and teams, it is a question of trial and error, hit or miss, in terms of competition at world championships, Commonwealth and Olympic Games. Above all, the development of sports science and medicine can greatly assist sports organisations to look after athletes and teams, by safeguarding their very lives.

Nowadays, regular medical check-ups are an essential component of good quality of life for the average citizen and more importantly for elite sports persons.

 This is due to the strenuous training programmes and physical demands of performance at the highest level. To this end, the sudden and tragic death of Cameroonian footballer, Marc-Vivien Foe at the 2003 FIFA Confederations Cup, could probably have been avoided.

In addition, the miracle of Bolton Wanderers FC player, Fabrice Muamba, who collapsed in England on the field of play, with his heart not beating for 78 minutes, is a poignant reminder that sport scientists and medical professionals are very much needed in sport. 

Doctors had to work overtime to revive the fellow who has, fortunately, lived to tell the tale. If that was to happen here in most Southern African countries, there is no doubt that Muamba would be dead and buried by now. 

Basic things like having qualified first aid practitioners, paramedics, nurses, doctors as well as ambulances at various sports competitions are sometimes forgotten or just ignored due to twisted prioritisation or allocation of resources. 

In most cases, it is not even the lack of resources but just a question of poor planning.

There is need for intensive education and awareness creation for sports administrators and leaders to make them understand that the era of business as usual is long gone. 

The amateurish approach to issues of sports science and medicine can no longer be tolerated.

Sport and physical recreation activities are important aspects in the development of any nation as they promote adoption of active and healthy lifestyles by citizens. Sport and recreation activities help to enhance educational development and personal growth of participants at all levels and ages.

For the elite sports person, optimal health and fitness are pre-conditions for top level or world class performances as the body has to adjust to the demands for extra work and stress that is required.

However, in spite of all the safety precautions, invariably, elite athletes do get injured in various ways during their engagement in competitions, especially in high performance sports events. It is, therefore, important that the athlete is taken care of and rehabilitated in the shortest possible period. 

Southern Africa, like many other regions of the developing world, has lost and continues to lose potential world-class performers because of inadequate care during the occurrence of injuries and rehabilitation afterwards. One cannot help but empathise with elite athletes who have laid their bodies on the line in terms of representing their countries.

However, adequate care does not necessarily have to imply expenditure of colossal amounts of money to look after national teams and athletes. 

Basic sports science and medicine programmes need to be introduced by national sports authorities and associations at the junior level when athletes are being identified and developed for high level competition. Furthermore, there is also need for the relevant authorities to continue refining the insurance cover schemes and other services for national team athletes to ensure that they are responsive to the unique and changing needs of these athletes. 

It is in the interests of Southern African sports authorities to facilitate symposia, conference and workshops seminars and other fora for sports science and medical professionals to assist in the transformation. It is not a question of availability of resources but of the will to innovate or deteriorate!

September 2014
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