Matters of the sporting heart
Heart palpitations are not just limited to sportspeople, they affect those from all walks of life. Khanyiso Tshwaku examines the heart problem that laid Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira low
The moment the term “heart condition” is mentioned in sport, the names of footballers Fabrice Muamba, Miklós Fehér and Marc-Vivien Foé come to mind.
Aside from the young Irishman John McCall, who collapsed on the field during an Under-19 World Championship match against New Zealand in Durban in 2004; and the unfortunate Ulsterman Nevin Spence, who along with his brother and father drowned in a slurry tank, rugby has not been beset with many great tragedies.
Beast’s position, loosehead prop, is normally associated with calf, lower back and neck injuries.
The latter two are often because of awkward scrumming positions and the impact of an engagement call, where props, especially tightheads, who anchor scrums, have to bear the pressure put on them by the locks and loose-forwards.
But because of their size – most props average 110kg – heart problems can creep in.
Dr Shuaib Manjra of the SA Institute for Drug Free Sport, said the case of Mtawarira – who has 41 caps – is not unique, even though he acknowledged he did not know the root cause of the big Springbok’s heart palpitations.
Manjra said: “It is not a phenomenon unique to sportspeople, but it is something that occurs in the general public.
“It also depends on the cause of the palpitations because if the origin is pathological, then its results are very dangerous and you could find a person dropping down dead.”
There are also a number of cricketers who have succumbed to heart problems.
The little-known Wilf Slack, a left-hander who opened the batting with Graham Gooch in the ill-fated West Indian tour of 1985/86, was known to have regular heart problems and once blacked out while in Australia on
the Ashes tour.
He later collapsed and died in Gambia while playing cricket.
Current sporting survivors of heart problems are West Indian cricketer Chris Gayle, who once had to come off the field during a Test match in Hobart, Australia; and former Nigerian international footballer Nwankwo Kanu, who underwent heart surgery.
Manjra said there is no known cure for palpitations but a sportsman’s diet does not have much to do with it.
“It often depends on the cause as there are some abnormal rhythms that are caused by hormonal imbalances and things like high thyroid levels,” he said.
“If the abnormal rhythms are caused by external factors, then high caffeine levels and certain drugs and stimulants found in some medications could be responsible.”