The world learned yesterday that Arsenal’s Theo Walcott will miss both the remainder of the season and this summer’s World Cup after suffering a rupture of the anterior cruciate ligament (‘ACL’) in his left knee during the 2-0 FA Cup victory over Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday 4th January.
This development is plainly a devastating blow to England’s World Cup plans and Walcott himself, but it also serves to remind us of how short and precarious a human being’s sporting career can be.
History is littered with examples of sportsmen, elite and otherwise, who have suffered cruel injury fates – sometimes at the hands or feet of a fellow practitioner, sometimes by complete chance – and thereby lost days, weeks, months, even years of their potential sporting years.
[I’m not going to provide ‘feature colour’ for this piece by providing a list, partly because (if researched properly) it would be excessively long, and partly because – to be honest – at my age my memory is not what it was. I therefore leave the reader to provide his or her own, if and as required.]
Two factors deserve mention.
The first is that, in 2007, IRMES – the French biomedical and epidemiological institute of sports – reported upon a study of 3,260 world athletic records achieved since the first modern Olympics in 1896. It found that, whereas in 1896 athletes were operating to 75% of theoretical human physiological capacity, in 2004 the equivalent percentage was 99%.
When anything made of flesh and blood, e.g. the human body, is operating at the pressure demanded by modern elite sport, it is hardly surprising that something will give out from time to time.
The second is that an athlete’s active life is necessarily short. A period of seven years at the top of any elite sport is remarkable, one in excess of a decade exceptional. In the mid-Noughties, I read somewhere that the average – repeat, average – career span of a Premiership rugby player was three and a half seasons. It’s a sad but incontrovertible fact that the risk of early retirement forced by injury is something that accompanies every athlete.
For his sake, I hope that Walcott’s medical team and surgeon achieve miracles and that, before the end of this year, he will return to action as good as new.
However, I fear different.
In my experience of following the paths of those athletes who have come back from ACL ruptures – however good their repair and careful their rehabilitation process – they rarely regain their original speed over the ground. Fingers crossed, of course, but for someone like Walcott, whose pace is so important to his game, this latest injury could be a career-changing set-back.