Hungarian canoe king is dead

That was the title of one of the articles about György Kolonics that appeared on the internet. I must confess that I didn’t know much about György Kolonics, but in the last few days I learned a lot because every newspaper (I found 323 items just in the Hungarian media) reported on his untimely death. He died while practicing with his partner, György Kozmann, for the Beijing Olympics. Beijing would have been his fifth Olympics. His first was in 1992 (Barcelona) where he ended up fifth. After that he won two gold (Atlanta and Sydney) and two bronze medals (Atlanta and Athens). At the last Olympics he was already thirty-two years old; in hindsight he would have been wise to retire then. According to his trainer it was three years ago that Kolonics first fainted while practicing. It happened several times since, the last time about a month ago. Kolonics (nicknamed Kolo) took medical care very seriously; every time he felt that something wasn’t quite right he went to his doctor in the hospital specializing in sports medicine. The doctor never found anything wrong. Today, although the results of the autopsy are not yet public, the doctors are almost certain that he suffered from coronary sclerosis, something his own doctor would never have found.

Kolonics is not the first athlete to die while practicing or competing. I just read about a French cyclist (26) whose heart stopped while she was training. A French soccer player (24) also died in practice; a Dutch cyclist, a woman (25), died while competing; a Spanish basketball player (25) collapsed while training; a Hungarian soccer player (24) died on the soccer field. And one could continue.

If one compares the times of today’s Olympic champions with those fifty, sixty or one hundred years ago, we must realize that superhuman effort (and perhaps some drugs) is necessary to achieve fame in today’s fierce international competition. And what happens to these people’s bodies over time? Nothing good. While sports are important and necessary for good health, the people who compete in international meets are punishing their bodies to an extent that we ordinary people can’t even imagine. I am no expert, but I don’t think that running 25 kilometers a day is particularly good either for your heart or for your knees. 

One of my least favorite Olympic events is women’s gymnastics. I feel incredibly sorry for those little girls who at the age of 10 or 11 train for hours on end, can’t eat properly, can’t grow properly, might end up having eating disorders. And the fallout could be even worse.

Now that the Olympics are approaching all these doubts resurface. Oh, it was great to be able to see the Olympics on television in the sixties, but slowly the whole thing lost its charm. It became clear that the competition was neither amateur nor fair. The Soviet bloc countries sent their “amateurs” who were actually state-sponsored professionals with phoney jobs. This was also the case in the West but there the private sector sponsored the athletes. At last the Olympic committee allowed professional athletes to compete, ending the pretense of amateurism. Then drug scandals challenged the notion of a level playing field. The East German superwomen turned out to be on a personally ruinous regimen of male hormones. But those were primitive performance-enhancing drugs. Since then increasingly sophisticated drugs have made their way into the world of sports. Some offending athletes are discovered, but most likely many, many are not. I don’t think that I’m alone in being disillusioned about the whole thing.