To help, you had to be there

Published in the January 2005 issue of BioMechanics

By Jordana Bieze Foster

So many big-name players skipped the Olympics last year, not much was made of the fact that one of those big names was Pfizer.

At least most of the National Basketball Association players came up with excuses, some of which could actually be considered legitimate. Kobe Bryant had a criminal court case to attend to. Ray Allen's wife was expecting a baby. Jermaine O'Neal was rehabilitating from knee surgery.

Other players' excuses held less water. Vince Carter and Kevin Garnett each declined because of upcoming nuptials (suggesting the Olympics might not have been a scheduling priority when the wedding dates were being set). And Shaquille O'Neal, Mike Bibby, Jason Kidd, Richard Hamilton, Karl Malone, Ben Wallace, and Tracy McGrady all cited vague concerns about security, fatigue, or both.

Surprisingly, Pfizer representatives did not cite security concerns as a factor in the company's decision to discontinue its sponsorship of Olympic sports medicine research for the Athens games (see "Fast Facts," page 50). Instead, the company effectively said what the NBA players probably felt but were too politically correct to say: The Olympics just aren't that important.

That wasn't true for three-time scoring champion Allen Iverson or two-time MVP Tim Duncan, who did make the trip. And it certainly wasn't true for many foreign-born NBA stars like Dirk Nowitski who overcame their own fatigue and security concerns to play for their home countries. But for many of their colleagues, the idea of representing one's country in international competition has lost its Dream Team luster.

One has to hope it's only coincidence that the Olympic interest level of Pfizer and companies like it-and, to be fair, no other companies have been chomping at the bit to succeed Pfizer as sponsor-seems to be mirroring that of America's most elite basketball players. Because revenue-generating sports like basketball don't need Olympic sponsors to fund research on preventing injury and maximizing performance. It's the low-profile sports, like pole vaulting or ski jumping, that can really use the help.

For the low-profile sports, the Olympics offer a rare chance to study more than a handful of elite athletes in one place at the same time. It's also an opportunity to study, in one place, men and women competing in similar events. And because an Olympic medal is truly the holy grail for these athletes, researchers are able to observe them at true peak performance levels that can only be achieved through four years of focused training.

And it's the non-revenue-generating Olympic sports that can really benefit from research findings that can help maximize performance or prevent injury. Because so little scientific research has been done to date on these specific sports, it's impossible to know for sure how training practices designed for sports like ice hockey or baseball will or won't translate to sports like luge or the shot put. And preventing injury is even more important for a class of athletes who may only get one chance every four years to earn product endorsements or other financial rewards.

We've seen what happens when those in a position to help achieve Olympic goals lose interest in that quest. We saw it when the U.S. men's basketball team lost to previously unheralded Puerto Rico and ended up with a bronze medal instead of the expected gold.

Sports medicine researchers who weren't in Athens can't help Olympic athletes any more than the basketball teammates who weren't there could. Here's hoping another company will recognize that in time for the 2006 Olympics in Turin. Copyright 2008 Jordana Foster – 24 Kirkland Dr, Stow, MA – Email: – Fax: (815) 346-5239