A tummy bug nearly cost me Olympic gold: Steve Redgrave on the misery of colitis
Sir Steve Redgrave still remembers with utmost clarity one of the darkest moments of his sporting career.
The champion rower, our greatest British Olympian, was racked with pain and being sick on the hard shoulder of the M4 in London, as oblivious drivers sped by.
It was 1992 and his wife had been driving him home from hospital where he had just had 12 small pieces of his lower bowel removed as doctors sought to understand the exact nature of his debilitating illness.
“I was going to the toilet about six or seven times a day and my athletic performance was severely affected,” said Sir Steve Redgrave on having colitis
Incredibly, this was only a few weeks after winning his third Olympic gold medal in Barcelona, where he and partner Matt Pinsent had destroyed the opposition.
Sir Steve, 49, knew at the time that he was suffering from acute ulcerative colitis, but the symptoms had abated. What he didn’t know was that the disease would return with a vengeance.
Last week, Manchester United midfielder Darren Fletcher announced that he, too, suffers from the condition.
Sir Steve had every reason to pay attention when Fletcher revealed he will be taking a break from football to manage the illness that once had such a devastating effect on his own sporting life.
The man who went on to earn five successive Olympic gold medals and a knighthood, despite his colitis and subsequent development of diabetes, had been contacted by the Manchester United team doctor as a source of invaluable information and reassurance.
‘I spoke to Darren last week and I think it comforted him to be talking to somebody who’d come through a similar situation,’ says Sir Steve.
‘I told him I’m living proof that however bad it seems, there is potential to come out the other side. I hope he doesn’t feel so isolated as he may have felt before.’
Ulcerative colitis is a lifelong condition with often debilitating symptoms, distressing for anyone but particularly hard when allied to the workload of an athlete.
The reason colitis took more than four months to diagnose was the fact that Sir Steve kept on training, despite his symptoms
It is classed as an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and causes inflammation and ulceration in the colon (lower intestine) and rectum, which can produce symptoms of urgency, bleeding, diarrhoea, pain, profound fatigue and anaemia, as well as vomiting.
An estimated 240,000 Britons suffer from IBD; around half of them have ulcerative colitis.
‘I remember when it suddenly began,’ says Sir Steve. ‘I’d gone to South Africa in January 1992 to train and gone down with food poisoning.
‘That was the start of it. It seemed to clear up after taking medication, but then it came back as badly. We assumed it was just a vicious dose of salmonella. But eventually, after 17 weeks of diarrhoea, it was finally diagnosed as ulcerative colitis.
‘Perhaps I was one of the luckier ones. I wasn’t usually vomiting and I didn’t have uncontrollable diarrhoea, which some people suffer from. That would have been a bit inconvenient in a boat. But I was going to the toilet about six or seven times a day and my athletic performance was severely affected.
Manchester United midfielder Darren Fletcher suffers from colitis
‘When the doctors explained why, it made sense. Basically, they told me that my lower intestine was inflamed and oozing with blood. So I was losing blood, not absorbing nutrients, and in pain — sometimes doubled up with pain.’
The reason it took more than four months to diagnose was the fact that Sir Steve kept on training, despite his symptoms.
One specialist had ulcerative colitis as the last thing on his list because he couldn’t believe anyone with the disease could do strenuous Olympic training.
‘I think he was a bit shocked when it turned out to be the case,’ says Sir Steve.’
Ulcerative colitis is thought to be caused by the immune system attacking the body — with food poisoning a recognised trigger.
As Dr Peter McIntyre, a leading specialist in Irritable Bowel Disease, based at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Welwyn, explains: ‘We don’t know the exact cause, but the immune system kicks in to fight the infection and for some reason doesn’t shut down again.
“The inflammation that occurs as a result of the infection remains and, over time, the intestine is damaged.
‘In the majority of people there is no clear trigger. At the furthest end of the spectrum it is debilitating, even life-threatening, and in a minority of cases surgery is required to remove the colon altogether.’
Typically, symptoms include an urgent need to go to the loo and, as Dr McIntyre explains: ‘A footballer or someone stuck in a boat could find this tricky. Not to say mentally disconcerting and wearing.’
Never one to cave in, Sir Steve refused to miss a single training session. But his performances suffered.
When Redgrave and Pinsent, already an iconic duo, lost in the national trials for the Olympics in Barcelona, it was an event of pretty seismic proportions.
Hushed discussions began. The path of British Olympic history would have been entirely altered had the plans to drop Sir Steve from the team gone ahead.
In the event he was given another two weeks grace. It was during those two weeks (less than three months before the Olympics) that the diagnosis was finally made.
Medication (anti-inflammatory drug dipentum) was prescribed and almost miraculously Sir Steve made a recovery of sufficient speed to not only compete in Barcelona but give one of the best performances of his 20-year career.
‘I don’t really know why I was well for those essential few weeks when I had been pretty sick before and afterwards. People have asked me if it’s possible my willpower had something to do with it. But if your mind was that strong, you’d never be ill, would you
‘My attitude was just to get on with it. As a sportsman I was always having to overcome obstacles that seemed designed to slow me down. This was just another one. ’
In Sir Steve’s case, his condition has been pretty well contained but for a flare up after the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. He now takes the immunosuppressive drug azathioprine on a daily basis to help control the condition.
Interestingly, Sir Steve has been advised that the various medications he took to control his colitis may have had some influence on the development of type 2 diabetes five years later in 1997.
While the science has yet to confirm this, many of his doctors agree. It makes it all the more remarkable that he rowed to his fifth gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Not many people would have put money on a 38-year-old colitis-suffering diabetic with a packet of sugar sellotaped to the bottom of the boat just in case he felt himself falling into a glycaemic coma.
‘He is exceptional,’ says Dr McIntyre. ‘The majority of people don’t have anything like his mental toughness. But Olympic guys don’t get there without being way off the scale in terms of mental and physical capacity.
“More typically, we recommend people with ulcerative colitis stop work and, if necessary, come in to hospital.
‘That would make sense in the case of Darren Fletcher. He doesn’t need to be running up and down the football pitch at the moment.’
Sir Steve’s attitude was, and remains, the definition of stoicism.
‘Everyone is different in how they respond to the treatment,’ he says.
‘I took the view — as I always did — that whatever the difficulty, someone has got to win the gold medal. Why shouldn’t it be me’
Sir Steve Redgrave’s latest book is Greatest Sporting Moments, a photographic compilation of memorable events of the Olympic Games (Headline, 20). For more information: crohnsandcolitis.org.uk