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Body pushed to limit: Part 2 in a series

Obadele Thompson

Body pushed to limit: Part 2 in a series

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Then came 1999, two years later; the year in which many things happened.
For me, injuries meant rehabilitation in a major way. This happened when I joined the athletic fraternity which was under Mr Dan Pfaff, whom coach Jay Johnson declared in 2010 as “arguably the world’s best track coach”. (see
When I joined his team he was one of the senior coaches at the University of Texas at Austin and the coach of Donovan Bailey who had won the 100 metres at the Atlanta Olympics in a world record time
For the past few years, Mr Pfaff has been the lead coach of the British Athletics high-performance centre and has received many accolades for the team’s outstanding performance at the recently concluded London Olympics, including coaching long jump gold medallist Greg Rutherford.
Coach Pfaff realized that I was likely to suffer permanent injury to my legs unless I undertook major changes to my running style due to the physical configuration of my feet.
It entailed trips to specialists in Japan and Canada, building special running shoes for me, placing orthotics in them and doing considerable physiotherapy work and other adjustments to block and transition speeds (see attached document from Mr Pfaff to the Amateur Athletic Association, 1999).
Four years later coach Pfaff wrote the association an even stronger letter and sent a copy to my father. That letter documents the many struggles that I was undergoing to achieve fitness, through visits to specialists in the United States, Europe and Canada; the vast amount of money that I had spent (while earning increasingly less from my sponsors); and the emotional and psychological struggles that I was experiencing to do so.
It also points out my determination to overcome the problems that were besetting me. Coach Pfaff captured the intensity of my struggles when he wrote, “In my 30 years of coaching I have never seen an athlete fight so hard with so many obstacles and it is a credit to his faith that he has been able to hang in there and continue to seek answers.”
You must read this letter in order to understand the agonies that I have gone through in my quest to achieve glory for my country and myself. (see attached 2003 document).
The fact is that in the years which followed Sydney I was unable to maintain my visibility in the sport on any meaningful scale and attract significant (further) sponsorships. I did receive some assistance in lump sums from Banks Breweries, Barbados Tourism Authority, Digicel, Sagicor and a close friend of my family who in the past preferred me not to mention his name. However, my medical (and other) bills continued to exceed my income from these sources
A series of frustrating and untimely injuries made it difficult for me to train consistently and so I was unable to race, often for months at a time. For example, I raced only once in the 13-month period between the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England, and the start of the 2003 IAAF World Championships in Paris, France.
In both cases I entered the meets carrying injuries. For the record, the only major international championships at which I competed between 1994 and 2005 without nursing serious injury while representing Barbados were the 1995 World Championships and the 1998
Commonwealth Games. I had experienced many health problems early in 1998 but had largely overcome them by the time of the Games
Let me digress here to say that, unfortunately I placed third in the 100 metres at those Games, due to the worst start I have ever had in any event. I came out dead last in a reaction time of 0.230 seconds. Put baldly, I messed up and will offer no excuse for what happened.
However, several major athletes have done the same at some point in their careers.
Linford Christie, Barcelona Olympics gold medallist in the 100 metres in 1992, false started twice  in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in that event and was disqualified. Even more famously, Usain Bolt, arguably the most iconic figure in track and field history, was thrown out of the 100 metres at the 2011 World Championships because he false started. They anticipated the gun; I simply slept.
I reached my lowest point in October, 2002 when my health issues became so frustrating that I telephoned my father in tears during a workout to tell him that it was “over”: I could not go on any longer. I was running more slowly than some of the female athletes in my training group.
He advised me not to quit altogether, but to cease doing track work and concentrate on gym activity until at least the beginning of the new year.  
His timely encouragement and advice helped to save my career for a while longer. However, the simple and regrettable fact is that I never returned to any level of sustained health and fitness that allowed me to compete successfully against the giants in my sport who were becoming faster while I was becoming slower.
This is perhaps the most detailed public description of my health that I have given so far, but those who have followed my career closely are aware that I battled injuries for many years before and after Sydney.
Ato Boldon captured the problem of racing continuously, and especially doubling in the 100 and 200 metres. This is what he had to say on June 4, 2003, in response to a question by an interviewer from The Trinidad Guardian: “Let me point out that anyone who has ‘doubled’ – running both the 100 and 200 – at a world-class level for a while has had injury issues of late. Three sprinters have done it with regularity over the past seven years – Obadele Thompson, Frankie Fredericks and myself. All of us have had major injury issues since 2000.
“Oba has barely been heard from since his Olympic Games bronze medal, Frankie missed the Olympic finals in 2000, and has only recently returned to his old self, and I have been hanging on, seemingly by a thread, in the past couple of years, fitness-wise.” That says it all.
The detailed explanations immediately above should have made my readers aware that finding the necessary money to finance my athletic career was the second major problem that I faced.
In my best days as an athlete, let’s say between 1994 and 2000 (though we could extend it to 2002) what I needed most was finances to make me really fit and to employ a range of medical specialists on a steady and long-term basis.
Let me illustrate this by what took place, particularly between 1998 and 2002. The norm for top sprinters, particularly the ones who realistically will be battling to make finals and win medals at the major championships (and indeed for those who hope to achieve such altitude), is to hire a top-class physiotherapist for treatment after training anywhere from three to five times weekly during the non-competitive period of the year.
As major championships approach, top sprinters receive constant physiotherapy or medical care, before and after training, multiple times per day. In fact, most of the male medallists, especially in the 100 metres, where even the slightest injury or mistake can decide their fate, compete with their coach and/or physiotherapist on hand at every meet during the entire season!
While in the U.S. or Canada, the cost for each physiotherapy session could range from US$50-120, depending on one’s relationship with the physiotherapist and the nature and length of the treatment. These costs increase when a therapist has to leave his or her professional practice in North America to travel with an athlete to meets on the European circuit or to major championships. Costs can range from US$150 per day upwards, not including the standard 150 euros per night that the meet hotels in Europe often charge for accompanying personnel or meals.
Sometimes a coach or agent may arrange for a physiotherapist to travel with his group exclusively, in which case the cost is divided among the athletes. Some shoe companies also provide this service to their top-sponsored athletes without charge.
Of course, if one did not have a personal physiotherapist present or if one needed a particular type of treatment for an injury, such as acupuncture or a chiropractic adjustment, a competitor’s physiotherapist might be able to fit you into his schedule for a premium price.
For instance, I once arranged with an athlete’s personal physiotherapist to treat me at 1 a.m., after he had finished working on his client, and paid almost US$300 for a 15-minute session so that I could gain relief from some hamstring problems that I was experiencing in order to perform more efficiently during one of my races on the European circuit on the following day.
Oftentimes session with other athlete’s physiotherapists, which were absolutely necessary to continue racing at the highest level, cost me upwards of US$100. 
My limited finances restricted how frequently I was able to visit the physiotherapists. Often they would be aware of my situation and offer me increase my visitations
For instance, when I first moved to Austin, Texas, in 1998 to train with coach Pfaff, he arranged with Dr Bob Meyer, a local physiotherapist, to give me a sizeable discount of US$25 so that I could afford to make the frequent visits needed to maintain my health during heavy training. Both of them knew that I did not have the money to pay for more regular treatment but they wanted to see me succeed. That discount lasted for a limited time and soon became US$60 per session.
Similarly, I am deeply indebted to this day, financially and otherwise, to Mr Jeremy Graham from Canada. Mr Graham, who handled the daily physiotherapy for Donavon Bailey after he ruptured his Achilles tendon in 1998, was the person whom I visited most when I needed special treatment. Between 2001 and 2008, I received well over 2000 hours of physiotherapy from him.
I paid for most of the cost of the trips to Canada, including airfare, car rental, hotel accommodation and meals. Occasionally, I stayed at a family member and sometimes at Mr Graham who would allow me to sleep on his couch in his apartment and later in one his guest bedrooms at his house (both with the blessing of his wife), free of cost, paying him very little money and owing him much more.
In 2003 Mr Nick Bourne (a qualified physical therapist and now senior lecturer at the University of East London) came on board for a short time, but at that stage he lacked the vast first-hand experience of my previous physiotherapists in handling top athletes. Yet he was knowledgeable, affordable, and able to provide me with more regular massages and rehabilitative workouts.
During Grand Prix and Golden League competitions in Europe, I almost invariably went without the services of either a coach or a physiotherapist, which some of the larger groups at those events sported.
Nothing that I have said above guarantees a medal at any event, but much of it changes the situation from a possibility to likelihood for the elite athlete.
For instance, two of my main rivals between 1997 and 2000 were Maurice Greene and Ato Boldon, who trained and often competed together under the banner of their Hudson Smith International (HIS) team. I have no doubt that their dominance of the European circuit and major meets during this period was in large part due to having their coach and physiotherapist at almost every meet.
I have already outlined the importance of having a physiotherapist, but in highly technical disciplines, the input of a coach, for instance, regarding body angles or strategy against a certain competitor, can make a significant difference. Notice that all top-ranked tennis players travel with their personal coaches.
I must say here that in my five or so European circuit meets between 1999 and 2000 for which I was able to pay for both coach Pfaff and my physiotherapist to attend,
I won two or three races and placed no lower than second in the others.
After May, 1997 I no longer enjoyed a track scholarship with UTEP. I should point out here that that scholarship, though called a full one, never provided for anything but my tuition fees, and board and lodging.
It was my responsibility to find the money for all other expenses, including clothing and trips to and from home. My parents liberally supplied this from their limited resources, while Banks Breweries also made a significant contribution, but one which fell far short of the money that I needed after I moved into the status of a professional athlete from mid-1997.
So restricted were my finances (especially before I became a professional) that for some years I refused to purchase vital supplements to sustain my body at a competitive level. When my father found out about what I was doing he admonished me strongly to purchase the supplements, undertaking to provide the necessary finance for it.
Throughout all of this, and indeed throughout my entire athletic career, I never received any subvention from the AAA. If I am wrong in saying so I would like Ms Clarke to provide evidence to the contrary, since she conveyed the impression that I made financial demands on the association.
Around 1999 the AAA did attempt to offer a few of its best athletes a small subvention. However, in my opinion the conditions that the organization sought to impose on the athletes, through a signed document, involved far too many demands on them, while only promising to grant them very small subventions as finances became available (less than BDS$1 000 per month, as I recall).
I did not sign the document and, in any event, the AAA’s initiative was short-lived because it hardly produced any funds for those who had signed the document. Of course, the AAA reimbursed me for my travel expenses in coming home to compete at National Championships, a policy that it had put in place for all athletes who made the national team for overseas competitions. On a few occasions I also received a small per diem allowance during competition, as other athletes also did
on such occasions.
My records show that May, 2004 was the first time that I received a direct subvention from the National Sports Council (NSC), in the amount of BDS$25 000. This was just a few months before my last Olympic appearance in Athens. I also received two or three other subventions from that organization.
The Olympic Association (BOA) also gave me a cash reward of BDS$50 000 for winning a bronze medal at the Sydney Olympics, and small but important sums of money on a few other occasions up to 2004.
I wish to make it clear that I am not complaining about the lack of support from the NSC and the BOA because I was critically aware that they were very short on finance to support the many demands on them to fund sports persons and sports organizations locally. I am grateful for their contributions. However, my expenses due to my health problems and the rising cost of living made it necessary for me to seek finances from elsewhere.
As the attached document which my father (who was my local manager) prepared on my behalf will show, my estimated expenses for October 2003 to July 2004 amounted to US$142 000 (BDS$284 000).
This sum was large by Barbadian standards but was much smaller than the money being spent on many of my competitors
Readers may be interested in knowing that the structural and training costs of each medal that the British won at the summer Olympics in 2000 amounted to roughly £2.1 million (BDS$6.6 million), in 2004 £2.3 million (BDS$7.6 million), and in 2008 £5 million (BDS$15.8 million) (Richard Anderson, “Olympic success: How much does a gold medal cost? August 6, 2012. ).
I never came close to realizing the sum mentioned in my estimates above and continued to rely greatly on the generosity of my coach and physiotherapist. I also attended very few meets in that year due to continued injury.
Conscious of the high expenditure by developed countries on their athletes in order to obtain often elusive medals, my dilemma was how to acquire enough funds to give me a fair chance of medalling, noting also my dire need of constant medical attention simply to keep me fit enough to compete. I could not seek a regular job and find the necessary time to train and attend meets, so I chose to become a professional (full-time) athlete. I retained this status until 2008 when I was forced to quit the sport altogether due to injury at National Championships in that year.
My main sponsor between 1997 and 2005 was Mizuno, one of the largest sports apparel companies in Japan. I ultimately lost my sponsorship by that organization due to my increasing inability to stay healthy enough to compete at the highest levels of the sport, and sometimes even to compete at all.
But I soldiered on until 2008, expending funds that I had accumulated earlier and depending on the largesse of my coaches and physiotherapists, and other well-wishers.
The reader should understand that my quest for financial support had nothing to do with a “get-rich” mentality, but rather with trying to stay healthy enough to represent my country and make Barbadians proud of my achievements.
The adage that “he who pays the piper calls the tune” was true of Mizuno, as it had been of UTEP, my university, for whom I ran between 40 and 60 races each season before returning home to run at Nationals and compete at regional championships.
Mizuno’s sponsorship of me was a very important factor in my insistence after 1997 that I should not be mandated to compete at such lower-level regional meets as the Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Championships, and the Pan American Games, though I did compete at several of them during my professional career, including the 1999 CAC Championships in Barbados
I was the primary representative of Mizuno International Track Club in athletics which, as noted above, had paid for many of my medical expenses in 1999 and contributed to similar expenses on a much smaller scale during my contract period with that organization. My contract with Mizuno stipulated that I should compete annually in at least five major athletic events (and ideally ten such events), usually in Europe, and in certain races in Japan.
• Obadele Thompson is Barbados’ first individual Olympic medallist, winning a bronze medal in the men’s 100 metres at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Part 3 of this series will appear in the MIDWEEK NATION.