Michael Pavitt

Comments from two very different athletes caught my eye over the past week, with both stories providing food for thought.

One came in the build-up to this month's FIFA World Cup in Russia, with the pre-tournament excitement having fully kicked into gear in England.

Much was made of the openness of the England team compared to previous squads, with the media heavily praising an NFL-style "media day". All players were made available to the press in a "speed dating" style format for a set period of around 45 minutes.

The only person it did not really seem to suit was the YouTuber tasked with asking players questions from fans for the Football Association's channel, as he had clearly been told not to interrupt the media while they conducted their actual interviews. It led to him wandering around in circles with players nearly always occupied, before he eventually darted in between a couple of interviews to get his content.

England's left back Danny Rose certainly provided the best content from the day, with startlingly frank comments about depression and an admission that he told his family not to go to Russia for the tournament due to concerns over possible racism.

He was rightly praised for his honesty about these issues, with his high-profile bringing the two serious topics into public discussion over the past week. A topic which has perhaps been less reflected on came when discussing his depression.

Rose expressed his belief that the depression was partly brought about by a prolonged period on the sidelines, with a knee injury preventing him from playing for his club side Tottenham Hotspur for nearly nine months.

"It all stemmed from my injury when I was advised I didn't need an operation," Rose was quoted as saying. "I don't know how many tablets I took trying to get fit for Tottenham. I had cortisone and platelet rich plasma injections trying to be fit for my club. I had to have an operation four months down the line."

Danny Rose spoke about depression, racism and treatment of a knee injury sustained last year ©Getty Images
Danny Rose spoke about depression, racism and treatment of a knee injury sustained last year ©Getty Images

In an eye-opening interview, those words had the added effect of raising my eyebrows.

Over the past year, I have written a fair few articles where cortisone has been mentioned. It has normally been surrounding cycling. It has come up regarding controversial Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs), namely over whether their use levels the playing field or gains an unfair advantage. There have been calls for any rider who needs cortisone to be made to sit out of races, while the International Cycling Union President David Lappartient has been looking to ban it entirely.

It therefore seemed somewhat surprising to see a Premier League footballer speak about it in such a matter of fact way. Of course, there appears to have been a legitimate reason for Rose to have been given cortisone, as it helped to treat an injury.

But surely the same arguments should still apply in football as they do in cycling?

I wrote a couple of months ago when the DCMS report came out that athletics and cycling were scrutinised to a far greater extent - both in and out of the sports - than others.

If Rose's comments about cortisone and platelet rich plasma injections had come out of the mouth of a cyclist, I would suggest they would have caused far more of a stir.

Or for instance the quotes of Sergio Ramos, when responding to the ongoing accusations that he deliberately injured Liverpool's Mohamed Salah in the Champions League final last month.

"I've exchanged messages with Salah and he was pretty good," the Real Madrid and Spain defender said. "If he had an injection he could have played the second half, I've done it sometimes."

Again, there is no indication that Ramos has done anything wrong, but it is fascinating to think that a player could have an injection at half-time to carry on playing in the second half, seemingly with no questions asked.

From my perspective, it is not even a question whether it is right or wrong that this is taking place. If it is within the rules, fine. However, you do wonder how commonplace it is for players to take painkilling injections to help them through matches and even seasons.

Footballers will comment from time to time about going through the pain barrier, while often players will make rapid returns from injury. You have to question at times how good it is for them physically to do so, despite the clear incentives of chasing trophies, helping their team to avoid relegation or merely retain their place in a team.

Occasionally there will be story when a player will admit to playing in pain for most of their career. Two years ago, Danish footballer Daniel Agger announced his retirement at the early age of 31, later expressing his regret that he had taken too many anti-inflammatories.

Maybe it should be time for football to have an open discussion around this issue, to ask whether the short term gains on the pitch are worth the possible physical and mental cost?

Sergio Ramos reportedly said Mohamed Salah could have continued playing in the Champions League final had he had an injection ©Getty Images
Sergio Ramos reportedly said Mohamed Salah could have continued playing in the Champions League final had he had an injection ©Getty Images

The second story this week also partly centered around the mental side of sport, with Australian swimming great Ian Thorpe calling for the end of medal targets. The five-time Olympic champion claimed targets placed undue pressure on athletes and freeing them of such goals would help their performance at major events.

Thorpe stated it was "not beneficial when sporting organisations are talking about how many gold medals we'll win at a competition".

His view was backed by Australian Olympic Committee President John Coates, who stated that the organisation were moving away from setting targets for their Olympic teams.

Their opinions have received a mixed reaction.

A column in Australia decried how this was the "latest example of Australia going soft" and questioned the logic of funding sports when there was no pressure to provide any tangible success at the end.

I can see some weight in both arguments. 

The debate somewhat mirrors the one being had in Britain at the moment, with UK Sport considering whether to rethink their "no compromise" model.

There is no doubt that since the model was introduced Britain have reaped the rewards in terms of medals, having risen from 36th on the table at Atlanta 1996 up to 10th at Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004, fourth at Beijing 2008 and third at London 2012. The ascent continued with a second place at Rio 2016.

One wonders whether Australia would be considering scrapping medal targets had they found themselves in Britain's shoes, rather than missing targets at recent Games.

However, I do partly agree with Coates when he said the "focus should be on Australians engaging in sporting activity and seeking to fulfil themselves through sport", rather than ensuring a glut of medals.

I would maintain that medal success can help, with perhaps greater television coverage and interest potentially following a run of triumphs in a sport. However, this is likely to come from sports like athletics, cycling and swimming, which are already accessible and a mass participation strategy could follow. Compare this to niche sports like modern pentathlon and sailing, where only a limited number of people would pursue it, regardless of medal success.

Ian Thorpe has suggested Australia scrap medal targets for their Olympic sports ©Getty Images
Ian Thorpe has suggested Australia scrap medal targets for their Olympic sports ©Getty Images

There is also something daft about trying to judge whether a sport has been successful compared to another. Some sports offer a controlled environment and give athletes' multiple chances of medal success, like swimming, whereas others are more unpredictable and could see hopes go up in smoke in a second. 

That is before you consider the impossibility of comparing the achievement of an athlete in an individual sport to that of a team.

I expect that targets and medal tables will continue to feature prominently in the future, although I imagine UK Sport's model might slightly shift when their consultation process ends, given some recent criticism.

People will want to see that money is being spent is achieving success. Targets and medal tables are one way for it to be assessed. The latter, which is essentially a media construct, has become such a major part of a Games that I imagine there would be a significant amount of complaints if it were to be ditched.

That being said, the two debates in Australia and Britain could prove interesting ones to follow in the coming months.