The Olympic and Paralympic Legacy – Inspirational and Medicinal

It seems an age ago that Daniel Craig pushed HRH Queen Elizabeth from a helicopter hovering over London E20 into the Olympic park (that will now take her name), and thereby officially open the XXX Olympiad. And what an amazing two weeks it was! I like many of you I suspect, have shed a tear or two on witnessing the outstanding performances of all the athletes, but particularly those of Team GB. We will all have our favourite moments – be it Mo Farah, “Queen V” Pendleton, Chris Hoy or Jessica Ennis. The emotion from medallists who had succeeded despite losing much loved family members – notably Gemma Gibbons in the Judo and Tom Daley on the 10m diving board – was particularly tear jerking.  I had the good fortune to see some of the coverage from down-under in Brisbane and what a pleasure it was to savour our success whilst the Aussie press were lambasting their own failures.  One bitter statistic they were struggling to come to terms with was the concept that that my own great “nation” – Yorkshire – had outperformed Australia. In the end I think it was a tie, but the “Yorkshire grit” shown by Nicola Adams boxing her way into the history books was most heart warming.

Just as the blues were descending post Olympics, along came the Paralympics, and in many ways the performances here were even more amazing. Last year I spent time in Charlottesville in Virginia, USA as a Visiting Professor and saw firsthand how a close colleague coped on a day to day basis with disability. This talented Professor had broken his neck many years earlier when a tree fell on him in a severe storm rendering him paraplegic and wheelchair bound. His academic ability and innovation remain world leading, but I was also in awe of his daily routine in terms of the personal discipline required to cope with simple tasks that we all take for granted – hygiene, driving, work access, shopping to name a few.

To then consider the logistics alone, not least the immense physical efforts that individuals such as David Weir and Hannah Cockcroft must have gone through to become world beaters in wheelchair athletics, is simply mind boggling. Other individual performances – Ellie Simmonds in the pool, Sophie Christiansen and her horse and Jonnie Peacock’s amazing 10.9sec 100m run will, for me, remain treasured examples of outstanding personal achievement.

And now the blues have descended once more, what can we take from this mesmerising experience that in some small way might enhance our own future life paths? Firstly, it must be inspiration – we all have some in-built talent and capability, but the drive, dedication and execution to harness such skills and achieve a great deal more is surely within us in our every walk of life, not just Olympians? Secondly, success in the face of adversity. All of us in some phases of our lives have, or will, experience tough times – be it illness, physical or mental stress or permanent disability. For me the experience of watching others achieve way beyond anyone’s expectation despite huge adversity gives an inner strength in coping with similar (although arguably less severe) setbacks in my own life. As I look particularly to the new cohort of MB ChB students, these two personal qualities – dedication and resilience – will undoubtedly serve you all well in becoming a doctor.

There is also a wider health legacy for individuals and populations at large. Exercise must become a cornerstone of future health/social policy if we are to have a meaningful impact on tomorrow’s health priorities such as obesity and ageing. Birmingham is a young city with more of its population under the age of 16 than most – but it is also the obesity capital of the UK with up to 50% of its children either overweight or clinically obese.

At a time when our daily caloric intake is not dramatically different from 30 years ago, there is good reason to believe that this new “tsunami” of obesity is explained by sedentary behaviour – we don’t walk to school or do competitive sport anymore and restrict exercise to both thumbs operating the playstation! Similarly, there is a body of evidence to support the notion that healthy lifespan requires regular exercise in advancing years. Part of the issue here is “changing personal behaviour” – something that is notoriously difficult as we have seen from smoking and alcohol examples. Our own Sports & Exercise research programme here in Birmingham aligns obesity researchers with psychologists and sports physiologists to evaluate these areas (http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/mds/centres/obesity/index.aspx).  We can make headway and hopefully the Olympic and Paralympic legacy will involve personal life style alterations as well as measures to induce population change. As future doctors you will all be well placed to champion such concepts.

Ok, I’m logging off now to go swimming – all too worried in the face of an ever younger new cohort of medical students that healthy ageing needs to be high on my own personal agenda!

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