Athletes and alcoholism are not strange bedfellows


There are many athletes, musicians and actors that have damaged their careers thanks to alcohol and drug consumption. But with athletes, it is even worse because they should be models of health and determination and many careers have been ended by such scandal.

Reports that marathon sensation Samuel Kamau Wanjiru was under the influence when he met his death have sent shock waves at home and abroad.

Our sportsmen are developing a culture of binge drinking every time they do something successful. These so-called hardworking sportsmen are paid more in a year than some people earn in a lifetime and have become public figures in society.

They drink hard and we idolise them. We glorify what they do and excuse it because they ‘work hard’. Unfortunately our stars destroy their lives while we watch and cheer.

Wanjiru was under pressure to succeed. With success came expectations. The expectations were usually highlighted by the media and followed by his supporting masses who wanted to see results. The higher the level of achievement an athlete rises to, the greater the expectations, and the greater the pressure to succeed.

The biggest fear in an athlete is failure. It is from this view that an athlete seeks some form of comfort. It’s in alcohol that athletes such as Wanjiru found solace. The hardest part of a successful athlete is primarily to stay successful.

I respect our fallen hero. Indeed, I idolise him, albeit posthumously. Sadly, he died a famous celebrity alcoholic. Fame and fortune does not serve as a deterrent for alcoholism, famous alcoholics also serve as examples of how excessive drinking can wreak havoc on a person’s life.

Fame and fortune

At 24, Wanjiru was not at peace. Confused and humiliated after a decadent lifestyle saw his marriage hit turbulence and a reputation in ruin, the runner could not hide his insecurity, stacked as high as his legendary records. He fretted about his place in this world — where he comes from, where he was headed and how the life and turbulent times of Wanjiru played out.

Wanjiru exhibited a pattern typical of people who were traumatised at an early age by circumstance and environment. He was a classic case of child who grew up in a destructive dysfunctional environment.

His low self-esteem manifests itself in cross-addiction; alcohol, sex and spending sprees. Addicts use these things to get high and bring them out of their boredom, depression and miserable existence. It was a matter of time before Wanjiru started to drift away from the public eye. He may have been angry that he didn’t know the identity of his real father. He was inexperienced and was not prepared for marriage hence the reason he became a habitual cheat.

At a personal level, alcohol misuse can devastate an individual’s well-being and safety. At sport level, it damages the integrity of the sport and club. Negative associations arising from a drinking culture could jeopardise sponsorships. It also takes emphasis off the sport, performance and the ‘good’ stories within the sport. Broadly, continued misuse creates negative role models and builds a culture of acceptance of inappropriate behaviour.

Reasons athletes drink include: to calm nerves, reduce inhibitions, increase mental alertness, reduce pain, or reduce muscle tremor.

However, the ‘benefits’ have exact opposite effects on athletes. The negative effects include: decreased strength, power and muscle endurance; decreased accuracy, balance and reaction time; slow visual tracking and information processing and a dehydrated body.

Drinking also suppresses an athlete’s immune system and affects recovery time from injury, depletes minerals and vitamins, affects sleep patterns and promotes body fat accumulation. It is responsible for accidents and injuries.

Signs of troubled behaviour include: Physically assaultive or threatening, exaggerated self-importance, excessive amount of breaks at practice, scrapes with police, frequent arguments, outbursts, episodes of crying, incoherent, rigid, inflexible, excessive attention to routine procedure, almost making it a ritual, unable to change plans with ease, depressed, withdrawn and suspicious.

Other tell-tale signs are accidents not related to sports, physical complaints, frequent injuries due to carelessness, and lack of interest in one’s sport, mistakes due to poor judgement, and lateness for practices or meetings, improbable excuses for deteriorating performance, fluctuating periods of high or low productivity including absent-mindedness.

There is need to encourage athletes to seek professional help.

Writer is chairman, Association of Kenya Addiction Counsellors.