Matt Butler: The price of hope can be a life sentence of surgery and pain

View from the sofa: The Price of Gold, STV

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The Independent Online

We haven’t had the flying cars or meals in pill form yet, but the present day is already pretty darn futuristic. A case in point: even though this column is written “from the sofa”, often the actual viewing is done on a train, in between tasks at the office or in bed. And also, the choices are not restricted to programmes broadcast on these shores.

Like this week for instance: the programme of choice, The Price of Gold, came from Sweden, of all places, although the subject matter was common to any country with state-funded elite athlete programmes. And in keeping with the Brave New World theme, it detailed the potions, injections and gut-churning regimes that athletes go through in search of glory.

At this juncture, it is probably worth pointing out that we don’t trawl the  internet looking for Swedish documentaries on a regular basis. This one was linked  last week on, a website largely dedicated to weightlifting and its maverick offshoots.

The documentary began with the likes of Carolina Klüft and Christian Olsson, Olympic champion heptathlete and triple jumper respectively, lifting weights, running and puking their way through training with the 2012 Olympics in mind.

It then cut to shots of them and other Swedish athletes winning gold, with the commentator’s voiceover ending with “how do they do it?” before introducing a 15-year-old hurdling hopeful.

Then, boy, did the established stars let us know the price of success. Klüft, Kelly Sotherton’s nemesis in the early 2000s, reeled off her list of injuries: torn-off hamstring, herniated disc, shin-bone fractures, sprains and strains. “I think that is about it,” she said ruefully.

Susanna Kallur, a former Olympic hurdles champion, added: “Anyone who says being an elite athlete is good for you is nuts.”

Klüft and Olsson, the man who so often denied Phillips Idowu glory, were then interviewed and it was soon obvious that there is a certain amount of obsession when it comes to fulfilling athletic dreams.

That became more evident when the focus was switched to the hopefuls, like high jumper Erik Sundlöf, who ignored his Achilles problems to the extent that a huge grotesque hole appeared in his ankle and an 11-hour operation was necessary.

There was worse to come. A segment on the lengths (and lengthy lists of pain-killing and anti-inflammatory drugs) athletes go to hide or alleviate the pain from injuries sustained just before competition, was frankly depressing, as were interviews with athletes who admitted they had spent their careers “undernourished” and unrepentant coaches who had subjected their athletes to career-threatening training exercises.

The only semblance of a happy ending came when the stars were reintroduced and every one of them said the pain, injuries and surgeries were worth it. It was a harrowing insight, one that, you suspect, is not confined to Sweden.

And as for the 15-year-old hurdling hope, she was revealed at the end to be suffering from a stress fracture and it was doubtful whether she would ever be able to compete at an elite level. What a future.

Twitter: @mattbutler503