Athletes who smoke, no matter how little, are damaging their ability to perform at their highest level, writes BRIAN BOYD
CYCLIST BRADLEY Wiggins has a lung capacity of eight litres. That’s a good 30 per cent greater capacity than most people his age. He possesses the sort of lung power that propelled him to a Tour de France victory and an Olympic gold medal all over the space of a few weeks this summer. So what was he doing smoking a cigarette on holidays in Spain earlier this month?
As tobacco companies no doubt rubbed their hands in glee at this very public “outing” of Wiggins as a smoker, it is believed the cycling champ is not a regular smoker – just the odd, sneaky puff or two (or three) – but these photographs of a sporting hero smoking were enough to prise open sport’s dirty little secret – the number of high-profile sports stars who smoke.
A lot of the response to the Wiggins smoking picture was of the “but he’s super fit, the odd cigarette won’t harm him” but this is certainly not the case according to Prof Stephen Spiro, the deputy chairman of the British Lung Foundation who told the media that “it is wrong to assume that if you’re an athlete and have super lung function, smoking doesn’t matter. You’re making such demands on your lungs that any impairment will affect performance. These guys work at 120 per cent of normal so a few percentage points off their lung function could be the difference between a gold and a bronze.”
Smoking is the scourge of many a famous sporting star. Tennis star Anna Kournikova, who allegedly had a serious smoking habit during her playing career, once told an interviewer: “My smoking has nothing to do with my tennis.” Kournikova never dared smoke on court but one tennis player who, remarkably, used to light up during change-overs was German player Karsten Braasch (who only retired in 2004).
These days – with smoking bans in place almost everywhere – that sort of behaviour wouldn’t be tolerated and the sanctions facing sports stars are much greater.
Three years ago swimmer Michael Phelps was photographed smoking from a “bong” (a device normally used to smoke marijuana). His sport’s governing body, USA Swimming, suspended him from competition for three years. Phelps apologised for his “regrettable” behaviour, saying he showed “bad judgment”.
But it’s in the world of Premiership football that you will find – proportionally – the highest number of smokers. Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney has been photographed smoking numerous times, as has his striking partner Dimitar Berbatov. Chelsea’s Ashley Cole is another top player to have been photographed smoking. French legend Zinedine Zidan was snapped smoking days before the France vs Italy World Cup Final in 2006.
Late last year Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini was so frustrated by the continual smoking of his maverick striking star Mario Balotelli that he spoke about the problem to the media. “For me it’s not okay but I’m not his father or mother,” said Mancini. “If he was my son I would give him a kick on the ass. I told him that it is better you don’t smoke. I am against cigarettes always. There are players who smoke in Italy and I think also here [England]. I don’t think Mario smokes a lot – five or six a day. But I told him not to.”
Doctors will tell you that the problem with famous footballing stars being photographed smoking is that it sets such a bad example for impressionable young fans who look up to these players. Even the “just five or six cigarettes a day” is enough to damage their lung capacity – and with it their ability to perform at the highest level for their clubs.
There was a time, back when little was known about the cancer-causing properties of cigarettes, never mind their overall debilitating effect on one’s general health, when sports stars such as the multiple Grand-Slam winning tennis player Bill Tilden and the baseball great Joe DiMaggio would happily advertise cigarettes. Roger Bannister (the first sub four minute miler in 1954) recalls a running colleague who would have a friend waiting at the bell for him with a lit cigarette so he could have a drag between laps.
But with all that we know now about smoking’s effects, there’s no excuse. And if Bradley Wiggins suddenly starts coming second in his races, those photographs will come back to haunt him.