Playing Through Pain, the Price of Olympic Glory

As you stand on the podium watching your country’s flag be hoisted high above the rest while listening to the national anthem, you finally come to the realization it was all worth it. All the blood, sweat and tears. A lifetime of training for a single moment, possibly not more than ten seconds, that could change your life forever. Olympians have the cruelest odds of any athlete, having to wait every four years to compete, with most only getting one shot at their dream. But when is the price for glory not worth it?

There are many examples of athletes playing through pain and injury in the big four sports in the United States. The difference though when comparing Olympians is, that they often get paid peanuts compared to those athletes, all while risking their bodies too. Growing up we are taught playing through pain is a sign of toughness and courage. The “never give up” mentality is what drives some of the most historic Olympians to feats we never thought were possible. But what is the price for that moment of Olympic glory? Kerri Strug, during the 1996 Olympics, hurt her ankle on her first attempt on the vault in what would be the last event of the team competition. She later found out she tore multiple ligaments in that ankle, but still managed to stick the landing on one leg in her last attempt, clinching the gold medal. Shun Fujimoto, during the 1976 Olympics, broke his kneecap in one of the first team events in gymnastics. He continued on against medical advice in the competition and in the last event, the rings, upon sticking his landing dislocated the same knee injuring it even worse. His rings performance put Japan over the top to take team gold. Twenty years apart both Strug and Fujimoto played integral roles in their teams getting gold medals. Their price though, significant injuries that still today leave them walking with a noticeable limp. Derek Redmond, a sprinter representing Great Britain, injured his Achilles tendon just prior to the 1988 Olympics requiring surgery to fix it. Coming into the 1992 Olympics, Redmond was consumed in not missing another chance of a lifetime. In the 400 meter race he would pull up lame on the final turn completely tearing his hamstring off the bone. What followed was one of the most iconic moments in all of sports with his father leaping down from the stands to give him a shoulder to lean on aiding his son to be able to cross the finish line one last time. His injury that day was far worse than first expected and resulted in seven surgeries and ultimately forced him to retire. Did Redmond come back too early from his initial injury, or was injury a result of overcompensation while trying to compete at the highest level? The injuries affected these Olympians long after their playing days were done, but if you ask them if it was worth it and if put in the same situation they would do it all again.

Playing for Olympic glory at all costs is one thing, but what about the average athlete or kid playing sports. With the increase in youth/amateur sports as a big business, emphasis on competing at a high level while winning at all costs could not be higher these days. Parents and coaches should be the central figure in these young athlete’s development, but often times they are the ones placing the added pressure of winning at all costs on them. Athletes are not super humans, in contrast to what the media tells you, and their bodies can withstand only so much. The body needs time to heal and that is even more critical in young athletes whose bodies are still developing. Injuries to the foot or ankle cannot be rushed and take time to heal properly or they can have long lasting effects past the playing days. Kids are susceptible to growth plate injuries during sports which can cause permanent deformities affecting them on and off the playing field. Knowing when to not play through injuries can prevent worse injuries while also not putting extra strain on other parts of the body. A common result happens when someone injuries their ankle then overcompensates causing an injury to their opposite foot. Preventing injuries may be most critical to the development of young athletes. Proper athletic footwear is pivotal since different playing surfaces put different forces on the foot. Proper stretching including warm-up/cool down periods aids in keeping the body loose in anticipation for the added strains put on it during competition. Taking the extra time to prepare your body prior to competition can prevent injuries while also ensuring no long lasting ill effects off the playing field.

As a fan we often try to put ourselves in these athlete’s shoes and say if that was me I would play through the pain. The fact of the matter is until it is you competing out there when the “lights are on” you can’t tell how your mind and body will react. Athletes must always listen and trust their bodies when something isn’t right or when they just can’t give anymore. Competing at the highest level regardless of pain, is expected by coaches and the media while fans forever immortalize those athletes as warriors of the game. Playing through pain and injuries can not only affect the athlete in the present, but also can have long lasting effects throughout their lives. The old adage doctors and trainers tell their athletes when dealing with pain and injury is “live to see another day.” Unfortunately, in the Olympics this isn’t always true when often times there isn’t another day. They compete for their hopes and dreams risking the future for NOW!


Watauga Podiatrist
Written by Dr. Daniel Cairns
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