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Sport Uncovered
Louise Hazel

Sport Uncovered

“I’m one of those crazy people who loves exercise. I love taking friends down to the gym and putting them through their paces. But when it’s just me, I go out running at least three times a week and spend time in the gym doing Olympic lifts, like cleans, squats and bench-press. I’ve been to a number of commercial gyms lately, and it still surprises me how guys don’t understand that women can lift. They always seem very shocked when you pick up a barbell. I’d like to break that stereotype.

“It was such an amazing opportunity to compete at London 2012. The whole country got a taste for it, but inactivity is still a huge problem in this country – which is why I launched The Podium Effect last year. I’m a qualified personal trainer, so I thought about what I’d write for a person who wants to get into fitness and who wanted an insight into my Olympic training. It’s a 60-day workout and nutrition programme, but there’s also a free 30-day get-fit-for-free programme that people can try. The least I’ve been given as an athlete for the past 10 years is a free training programme, so this is my way of giving back.”

www.thepodiumeffect.com

Marcel Kittel on the rebirth of German cycling, clean sport and why 2015 is the year of the sprinter
Marcel Kittel

The big blond quiff standing head and shoulders above his nearest rivals is a familiar sight for British cycling fans. 

When Yorkshire hosted the grandest of Tour de France Grand Departs last July, Marcel Kittel was the first to wear the Yellow Jersey on the podium.

The German sprinter followed that up with a win on The Mall, as well as taking Stage 4 and his second consecutive win on the final stage on the Champs-Elysees.

But it is in his own country that he is having perhaps the biggest impact. Sport speaks to Kittel at the official launch of his team, Giant-Alpecin, at the French embassy in Berlin. The launch is celebrating not only a new title sponsor in German caffeine shampoo brand Alpecin, but also that the team will be the first in five years to race in the UCI WorldTour under a German licence. UCI president Brian Cookson, Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme and German Justice Minister Heiko Maas are all present.

NEW BEGINNINGS

The former two are here because, as Cookson explains, “it’s a new beginning for professional cycling in Germany”. But the latter’s attendance is perhaps most significant, with a proposed law that would make doping a criminal offence in Germany.

Kittel has publically supported the draft bill and spoken out about the most recent doping inquiry into cycling – the Padova investigation. Many riders from Astana, the team of current Tour de France champ Vincenzo Nibali (though not Nibali himself ), and their controversial manager Alexander Vinokourov have allegedly been linked with Dr Michele Ferrari – one of the men who helped Lance Armstrong dope – in the Padova report. So, how does Kittel feel about lining up against the Kazakh outfit this season?

“The first thing I want to say is that, from some agencies, I was not correctly quoted when they said I want to see particular persons out of the sport,” he says. “What I actually meant is that we should be all aware that we have to handle especially the talk or the discussion about doping always with the awareness that we are responsible for the future of the sport.

“And, in that case, also the people who are responsible for their actions in the past. And they should also react credibly when there are questions coming. So it’s not a way [an option] to say: ‘No, I refuse to answer any questions about this.’ But in the end, no, I don’t have a bad feeling racing against them. You cannot say that everyone there is a bad person, or is not clean, or anything. That would totally be the wrong opinion. But what I say is that everyone should be aware of how sensitive that topic is in cycling, especially in that you have to treat it with more care.”

We ask Kittel if, with his rock star-like status in German sport, he feels an obligation to speak up for clean cycling.

“With the popularity that I and also the team gained in the past couple of years, we also have some sort of podium,” he says. “If I was a young rider coming to such a sport, then I personally would be happy if there would be someone who gave me a bit of orientation and fights a bit for what is important and what should be changed. I believe it is... important to say what you think. And also to use that position that I have now to speak about things that go maybe wrong, or where you sometimes need a discussion. It would be wrong to not do it.”

TOUR ON TV

Having pulled out because of doping controversies, German public broadcaster ARD will this summer show live coverage of the Tour de France for the first time since 2011. It is, says Kittel, an important step. “You could watch the Tour de France in Germany on Eurosport,” he explains. “But to have it on public television, where you reach normal people who are not into sport every day and [do not] consciously switch on Eurosport... to give them another opportunity to view our sport, it’s nice.”

Those people could be tuning in to see Kittel wearing the Green Jersey this year. The points competition has been reshuffled to favour the outright winners in the opening nine days. However, the 26-year-old is not yet certain that his team will put all their efforts into pulling him into a position where he can go for stage wins in France.

“The Green Jersey might become a goal in the future,” Kittel explains. “I’m not sure if it happens this year, because you have to look to our team. We have a lot of good riders, with John [Degenkolb, another sprinter], Tom Dumoulin, and also an upcoming French talent in Warren Barguil. Everyone would like his chance.

“For me it’s absolutely fine, when I’m with Johnny in a race. That’s how we do every race – to make a plan together with him. We both have our chances, but on the other side we both have to sacrifice something. So, if I have to sacrifice the opportunity this year for the Green Jersey – if there would be one – it would be no problem for me.”

Given his success with stage wins last year, we tell Kittel we are surprised he isn’t nailed on as his team’s main man for the Tour.

“That’s how we did it always, the years before,” he replies. “And when you just look to us as sprinters, I think we both have chances to win stages of the Tour. And we can also be a benefit for each other. So it would be, in my eyes, very stupid if one of us says that he doesn’t want to help the other one on the team. Because we work for each other. I know John; we are friends. He knows that I am loyal to him. I know that he is loyal to me. And there is nothing I have to worry about. For me, it’s also very important to know we have a plan that everyone is happy with.”

Another rider who will hope to figure in the race for green is Britain’s Mark Cavendish. Kittel says he is looking forward to facing the Manx Missile after the Etixx-Quick Step rider crashed out on the first stage last year:

“When Cavendish was still on top of everyone else, there were not that many opponents he had to think about,” he says. “But now is the time of the sprint – a lot of riders are really good in the sprint. When I’m at the start, it’s not that I’m the only one who can win. There’s Andre Greipel, there’s Mark, there’s Dumoulin. There’s a lot of fast guys now who can win. It has got way more wide, the choice of potential winners.”

Kittel and Dumoulin begin their season at the Tour Down Under this weekend, after which Kittel says he will target the Spring Classics. But which ones? “It’s not clear, because the team is really strong in those races,” he replies. “John came second in Paris-Roubaix last year, for example, but I also have to make the selection. And I will make it a personal goal. I would like to contribute to the team’s success.”

His sprinting ability means personal glory for Kittel. But his wider importance to his team – and his country – isn’t lost on him either.

Alpecin, the leading caffeine shampoo brand for hair loss in men, is available at leading pharmacies and supermarkets. Visit teamgiantalpecin.com

Angel Di Maria, Manchester United’s record signing, on his season so far and the heights he wants to hit with his new team

With the end of 2014 in sight, Angel Di Maria might finally get a moment to draw breath.

The Manchester United midfielder finished last season having played 46 games for Real Madrid, including a starring role in the Champions League final – where he was presented with the man of the match award by Sir Alex Ferguson. A few weeks later, he was in Brazil for the World Cup, heralded by then-Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella as a “vital, almost irreplaceable” member of his team.

Di Maria started every match of his country’s campaign until a thigh injury during their quarter-final win over Belgium ruled him out of the semi-finals and consigned him to the role of a non-playing substitute for the final.

“It was still one of the greatest moments of my career,” says the 26-year-old of Argentina’s first World Cup final in 24 years, which ended in a 1-0 defeat to Germany. “Unfortunately we couldn’t win it, but it was an unforgettable experience.”

We’re speaking with Di Maria (with the assistance of a translator) on a murky afternoon in the north. It has been just over three months since he arrived in Manchester for a British record £59.7m. He didn’t make the move alone – bringing his wife and young daughter with him as well as a close friend, who accompanies him to our interview.

“It is difficult to come to a new country and start a new life,” he admits. “It is also complicated going through a change in terms of the style of game. So it is not easy. But when things go well on the pitch, that makes the adaptation a bit easier.”

TIMELY TRANSFER

Things could not have been much worse on the pitch for United than they were at the time of Di Maria’s arrival. The night his signing was announced, Louis van Gaal’s side were humiliated by MK Dons in the Capital One Cup. The lacklustre manner of their 4-0 second-round defeat to a side put together for less than £500,000 suggested that United’s record signing would have his work cut out if he is to bring the good times back to the red half of Manchester.

“When I arrived the team was not having a good time,” says Di Maria. “But there was a positive environment at the club still, and we knew that things could change. I arrived in Manchester to help the team and put them in the place where they should be, but I don’t do it alone. When we win, we all win. And when we lose, we all lose. Now we are fighting near the top of the table, so we must keep on working.”

Van Gaal’s described his new midfielder as a “tremendously fast and incisive left-footed player who puts fear into the most accomplished defence”. It did not take Di Maria long to live up to the Dutchman’s billing.

After showing flashes of brilliance on his 70-minute debut at Burnley, he found the back of the net in his second game for the club; his free-kick against QPR at Old Trafford set his team on their way to their first win of the season. He’s been on the score sheet twice more since, and racked up no fewer than six assists, suggesting that adapting to the English game hasn’t been quite as problematic for Di Maria as it has been for other La Liga imports.

“I am a quick player and English football is quite fast and intense, just like I am,” he explains. “So my style suits it well. The adaptation to a new country is never easy, but I got on the right foot from the very beginning. I scored goals and provided some assists, and that helped me a lot. But obviously I know I have to keep on improving.

“I must adapt to my team-mates, because there are still some moments in the game in which I feel I am not fully adapted yet. The language barrier has also made it a bit harder, but I am trying to overcome that as soon as possible so I can communicate with everyone.”

Language aside, Di Maria says the toughest thing about adjusting to life in Manchester is the climate. “It’s much colder here and it gets dark a lot earlier than in Spain,” he says. “I have no problem with the food or anything – there is not much difference between what I had in Spain and what I have here. My only problem is with the cold temperatures.” February could be interesting for the Argentine.

THE NOODLE VS THE BULL

His height and wiry frame led Di Maria’s Argentina and former Real Madrid team-mate Fernando Gago to give him the nickname ‘Fideo’, which translates as ‘noodle’. Add in his baby-face features and it’s easy to assume Di Maria might find the rough and tumble of the Premier League difficult, if not damaging – he was substituted early in United’s win over Hull last week with a hamstring injury.

“It’s true, the defenders are big and strong here,” he smiles. “But I never have any fear. If they have to hit me, then so be it. That’s part of the game. I will always try to play my way, no matter how big the defenders are.”

His attitude is entirely in keeping with the assertion of Argentina general manager Carlos Bilardo that Di Maria is no noodle, but a ‘bull’ – full of the strength, stamina and energy that allows him to see off even the biggest of Premier League centre-halves. It is also an attitude that allows him to play his game free from the shackles that a headline-making transfer fee can inflict upon a player.

While Fernando Torres buckled under the weighty expectations brought upon him by the £50m fee Chelsea paid for his services in 2011, Di Maria’s confidence in his abilities appears unshakeable.

“I am thankful to Manchester United for bringing me here,” he says. “Regarding the fee paid for me, it is an arrangement between clubs. I just play. If the amount paid reflects my value and United decided to pay it, then I am thankful and happy for that.”

Even the awarding of the number seven shirt, previously worn by club legends including George Best, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham and his former Madrid team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo, has not fazed him.

“I knew that the number seven was available,” he says. “So I could either choose that or the number nine. I wanted the number seven, though, because I knew who had worn it in the past. Also, I have the same number when I play for Argentina.”

EUROPEAN DREAMS

Having played under Van Gaal’s protege, Jose Mourinho, at Real Madrid, Di Maria says he knew of the Dutchman’s reputation for being “a good coach and a winner”.

“He took Holland to the semi-finals of the World Cup, and people tell me he is a really good trainer,” says Di Maria. “And he is showing that at United. He is a strict manager, that is true. You have to do things as he says, but he is the coach and we are the players. So we have to obey what he says. Every manager has his own ways of doing things. They are all different.”

On the day Sport speaks to Di Maria, the blue half of Manchester is due to play a crucial home Champions League tie against Bayern Munich not far from the hotel where we meet. The competition is one Di Maria says gave him one of his career’s greatest moments, when he was part of the Madrid team to win a tenth European title in May.

“It is every player’s dream to win the Champions League,” says the player who has recorded 20 league assists in 2014 – more than any other player in the top five European leagues. So, does he miss being a part of football’s most prestigious club competition?

“Yes, I do miss Champions League football,” he nods. “We will have to do our best this season so that we qualify for next year’s tournament. It won’t be easy. But some weeks ago we were seventh or eighth in the table, and now we are fourth. So we have to keep on working. The thing we aim for the most is qualifying for the Champions League, which is what this club deserves. I also want to win titles, but I am aware that we will have to go step by step since the manager and some of the players are new.”

Di Maria admits that this season most likely comes too early into United’s new era for a league title win to realistically be on the agenda.

“There is a long way to go until the end of the season, but Chelsea already have many more points than us,” he says. “We will fight to the end, though, so we can finish as high as possible in the table. It’s not easy to win titles, but it may happen as time goes by. I think this club must be back among the best.”

After a year that has seen him play a central role for Europe’s best team and the world’s second best, Di Maria knows what it takes to be there. With his bullish mind set on propelling Manchester United to those same heights, that £59.7m might soon seem like money well spent.

Angel Di Maria is an adidas player and wears the latest adidas Predator Supernatural. To join the conversation, follow @adidasUK #PredatorInstinct

Double Junior World Road Race champion Lucy Garner talks about the challenges of turning professional as she begins her third year on the road
Lucy Garner

Lucy Garner

Teething pain
“When I turned professional I was just 18, and it was tough to get used to the new life I was living. I moved away from family to a different country to join Team Argos-Shimano [now Liv-Plantur]. Then I had to get used to training and racing with the best women in the world. I’m a sprinter, and I was being thrown into races with these hills where I’d get completely spat out the back. I did get my first win as a pro at a race in China that year, though. That helped me feel like I’d found my place in the peloton.”

Routine riding
“After I won my second world junior title, I struggled mentally because it felt like a relief – I had done what I wanted to do. I hadn’t thought about what I would do afterwards. It took me my first pro year to get my head back to the way it was before the worlds. But it helped that my boyfriend [Giant-Alpecin rider Lars van der Haar] is probably one of the most professional people I’ve ever met. We make sure we keep to a strict routine.”

Racing heroes
“When I started, it was Victoria Pendleton. I was riding on the track as well, then. She always managed to combine winning with being really glamorous – which, as a 13-yearold, is what you want. When I started liking the road more, it was Marianne Vos. I still have huge respect for her. Last year I sprinted against her, which is difficult. You have to change your mindset because someone who was once your hero is now a competitor you have to want to beat.”

Taking the stage
“Now that Kirsten Wild has moved teams, I will be the sprinter for Liv-Plantur, so I’m going to have a lot of races this season. My first one will be in Qatar, on February 2. It’s pan flat and the stages are not too long, which suits me. Later in the year I’d like to come back and do the Friends Life Women’s Tour again.”

Learning from the best
“At training camps in the winter, we’re always with the men’s squad [Liv Plantur is the sister squad to Team Giant-Alpecin], which is great. Marcel Kittel is one of the best sprinters in the world, and I know exactly what he’s doing in training. It’s nice to feel like we’re one team, which is how they treat us. We’re not separated because we’re women. We’re experiencing exactly what the pro men are, which is how it should be.”

Lucy Garner is supported by the Sky Academy Sports Scholarships scheme, helping 11 young athletes fulfil their potential with tailored support including funding and mentoring. skysports.com/scholarships

The world’s fastest man on private jets, Louis van Gaal and why margarita pizzas are off the menu
Usain Bolt

The world’s fastest man takes our very special Q&A...

What’s your earliest sporting memory?
“My dad coming into my room early in the morning and waking me up to watch cricket. He had a TV in his room, but he couldn’t wake my mum up to watch the cricket so he had to come in my room. That’s how I first started out loving cricket.”

If you could be a professional in any other sport, what would it be?
“I’d play football for Manchester United, definitely. I’m a winger. I don’t know if there’s space for me now though. This new coach seems kinda serious [laughs].”

You can only watch three sports for the rest of your life. What are they?
“Football, track and field... and I love the NBA, so I’d have to pick that. I basically support whichever team Kevin Garnett is playing for, so right now it’s Brooklyn Nets. He’s a legend, but I hope he’s gonna retire soon because I need to support a better team [laughs].”

What TV show are you into?
“I’m a big fan of The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men. And somebody got me hooked on a series called The Walking Dead. It’s serious, man: zombies and stuff. Crazy.”

Have you ever been starstruck?
“When I first started out in track and field, I went to Manchester United. I was so happy. I got to meet Cristiano Ronaldo, who I was a big fan of, and Wayne Rooney. Meeting Didier Drogba for the first time was cool, too. What makes it amazing to me is that they actually knew who I was, so that was kind of cool.”

What’s the funniest rumour you’ve read about yourself?
“Before the Commonwealth Games, I heard I was flying to Glasgow in a private jet. That was kind of funny. Was it true? No, I took a normal flight. I don’t read up on myself much though. My agent does, but he doesn’t really tell me what’s going on.”

What’s the absolute highlight of your career so far?
“People are always surprised, but it’s when I won the World Junior Championships in Kingston in 2002 – because I won in front of a home crowd when I was 15 [his 200m win made him the youngest ever world junior gold-medallist]. To this day, that was the biggest moment for me. It was just loud and fun. And when they sang happy birthday for me at the Olympics in Beijing – that was kind of cool too.”

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
“I’ll stick with running fast, because it’s cool. If you watch cartoons, you’ll know you can do so much if you’re fast – you can shimmy through things, make tornadoes. Whoosh…”

If we offered you a margarita pizza or a margarita drink, which would you prefer?
“Margarita pizza? What’s that? Cheese and tomato? Hell no. I normally have pepperoni, pineapple, barbecue chicken… I gotta have toppings on a pizza. So I’ll take the cocktail.”

Who would you want to play you in a film of your life?
“My favourite actor is Jason Statham so… [laughs]. I can act myself, sometimes. I have to be in the mood for it, though.”

Usain Bolt, The World’s Fastest Man is Forever Faster with PUMA

Footballers, rugby players, wrestlers and NFL stars are risking their futures and their lives by playing through concussion. The end results can be devastating
concussion

Chris Nowinski was the first ever Harvard graduate to join the WWE.

Wrestling isn’t a common destination for alumni of the prestigious college, but Nowinski took to it with aplomb. He was naturally athletic – he had played as a defensive tackle for Harvard’s American football team and, at 6ft 5in, he had the physique to look the part as a wrestler. His character played on the stereotypes associated with his education – Nowinski wore briefs emblazoned with the Harvard ‘H’, and quoted Shakespeare to his opponents.

In 2003, an incident in the ring sparked a dramatic career change. “I was wrestling in a non-televised match in front of about 5,000 people,” he recalls, when we speak to him on the phone from his Boston office. “I was supposed to get kicked in the head and I was too close to the kick and it caught me under the chin. I immediately forgot where I was, and what we were doing.” He carried on, despite the concussion.

“I didn’t know enough to stop, so we ended up finishing the match, making up a new ending and then I went backstage and downplayed my symptoms. Even though I had headaches and nausea for weeks, I kept on telling the medical team I was fine, because I thought I was supposed to tough my way through those sorts of symptoms.”

It’s a common attitude among sportspeople, who regularly try and play on through concussion. Sometimes, they might not even be aware that they have a concussion – there’s a lack of understanding about what the word actually means. It’s not just getting knocked out. Seeing stars or feeling dizzy after a blow to the head are also symptoms of a concussion.

Over time, repeated concussions can cause serious problems, and scores of retired athletes in contact sports have suffered. “The headaches were pretty consistent for five years,” says Nowinski of his own issues, which forced him to retire from wrestling. “The sleep disorder lasted for threeand- a-half years. I would act out my dreams, I would have dreams that I was choking to death. I had memory problems that lasted for about a yearand- a-half that were pretty tough to deal with, and the depression that comes with those symptoms.”

Keen to spread the word, Nowinski wrote a book called Head Games, which has also been made into a documentary of the same name, exploring the dangers of sporting concussions. Now the 36-year-old heads up the Sports Legacy Institute, an organisation that seeks to raise awareness and lobbies sporting organisations to change their rules for the sake of athletes’ safety. Part of his job is persuading the families of deceased NFL players to donate their relatives’ brains so they can be studied for signs of damage.

Sometimes, he doesn’t even have to ask.

THE BRAIN BANK

On February 17, 2011, former NFL defensive back and two-time Super Bowl winner Dave Duerson was desperate to get a message across. The 50-year-old sent a text to his exwife, and also left a scrawled note at his home in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida. Both read the same: “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.” Then he shot himself in the heart.

The ‘brain bank’, or the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, is a research lab at Boston University where scientists examine the brains of sportspeople post-mortem to look for signs of damage related to concussion. Duerson’s brain tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that has been implicated in the mental decline, bizarre behaviour and suicide of several athletes. The symptoms are similar to Alzheimer’s disease – the damaged bits of nerve cells in the brain form abnormal proteins that then multiply and spread into other areas. “It looks like the brain essentially starts to rot,” says Nowinski. “The most advanced case of CTE we’ve seen was in a former NFL running back whose brain shrunk to half its original size.”

CTE was found in the brain of Justin Strzelczyk, the former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman killed when he drove into a tanker truck at 90mph while driving the wrong way up the freeway during a police chase.

It was also found in wrestler Chris Benoit, who murdered his wife and son before taking his own life. “Benoit’s brain was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient,” said one report. Nowinski writes of his former colleague in Head Games: “Whatever role steroids may have played in the situation, I believe he would never have become a murderer without the brain disease.”

One study by the Boston brain bank looked at the brains of 34 deceased NFL players, and found evidence of CTE in 33 of them. Another study, commissioned by the NFL, found retired players over the age of 50 were five times more likely than the rest of the US population to be diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or other memory problems, and that those between the ages of 30 and 49 were 19 times more likely.

The most recent research estimates that 30 per cent of NFL players will develop a neurodegenerative disease. It’s also possible that concussions could help explain some active players’ behaviour, too. Baltimore running back Ray Rice’s suspension from the league for domestic violence is far from an isolated incident – NFL players are about four times more likely to be arrested for domestic violence than you would expect based on their overall arrest rates. Research has linked domestic violence to problems with the pre-frontal cortex, an area at the front of the brain that can easily be damaged in a concussion because it bears the brunt of head-on impacts.

THE DEATH STAR

We’ve known about the link between sport and mental problems for almost a century. In 1928, the swaying and slurring of the punch-drunk boxer was investigated scientifically for the first time, and given the label ‘dementia pugilistica’. The plight of Muhammad Ali (diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome) is just one of a long line of warnings about the long-term dangers of repeated head injuries.

Despite that, Nowinski reckons as many as 80 per cent of concussions in contact sports still go undiagnosed – either because players are unaware of the symptoms, or they don’t want to show weakness. However, things are better than they were, according to Welsh rugby star Jamie Roberts, who is also a trained medical doctor.

“Go back six or seven years and there was a three-week rule that was standard, but teams would never stick to it,” he says. “Players get knocked out, go to the side of the pitch, have a splash of cold water on their face and go back on. It’s that macho bravado side: ‘I got knocked, but I’ll carry on playing.’”

Roberts cites an example from his own career, where he stayed on the field for 10 minutes with a fractured
skull before his symptoms worsened and he had to come off. It’s a regular occurrence in football, most recently in the case of Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who stayed on the field for 14 minutes after a heavy blow to the head, and who appeared to be bleeding from his ear when he eventually came off.

Staying on the pitch is a terrible idea for several reasons, the foremost of which is ‘second impact syndrome’. The brain is vulnerable in the days and weeks after a concussion – damaged nerve cells teeter on the brink, like buildings after an earthquake. Another hit can lead to instant death or severe disability. Nowinski likens it to “the Death Star in Star Wars when the deflector shield is down”.

“If you keep playing during a concussion, you’re most likely going to increase the length and the severity of symptoms,” he says. Part of the challenge is convincing players that they need to come off – a club doctor can’t do anything [to help] if the player isn’t being honest with them about their symptoms. “Concussions regularly cause problems with balance, reaction time and cognition, so what I tell athletes is that they’re usually dumber and slower when they’re on the field and they become a liability for their team,” says Nowinski.

“I think the World Cup showed that – a couple of players who played through concussion were pulled only when they made a mistake that nearly exposed the team to a goal. So the athletes should be told they should come off not only because it’s the right thing for their health, but also because it’s the right thing for the team.”

THE BOTTOM LINE

It’s not a problem confined to the highest level – there are an estimated three million sporting concussions a year across all levels of sport, and the best way to counteract it is education.

“It’s not just the players who need to be educated,” says Roberts. “It’s coaches, parents and referees. It’s everyone outside the game who can take decisions away from players. If I got knocked out playing for my local club, I’d want to carry on playing and go back to training on Tuesday ready for next Saturday. It’s important for that decision to be taken out of players’ hands, and that’s where coaches and coach education is paramount.”

Baseline testing is one of the ways to take the onus off the players. Roberts explains: “Before any season or campaign, you do a baseline test, which includes questions about your symptoms, balance tests, memory tests, memory recall, numeracy tests, which challenge every part of cognitive function. You have to attain those baseline test scores before you go out on to the field of play.”

Jason Sada is president of Axon Sports, an American company that produces baseline tests for athletes. “It measures something you can’t see,” he says. “It’s used to determine cognitive change – the tests are measurements that shouldn’t increase and improve – when they change, it’s really because there’s an impairment. But it is just one piece of the equation.”

These tools can’t help unless they’re implemented. Change is happening – slowly. Rugby union has been fiercely criticised in the past, but has changed its rules extensively in recent years. “In the elite game, it is pretty much spot on at the moment,” says Roberts. “The concussion bin has been put in place and it’s great – players go off and they’re assessed by a doctor, assessed by a competent healthcare professional and have to attain their baseline tests.”

It took a long battle for the NFL to recognise the dangers posed by concussion, but now the league has one of the best protocols in place for dealing with them. Other sports are following suit: this season the Premier League introduced new guidelines for concussion, including a tunnel doctor, but incidents such as the Courtois one show there’s a lot still to do.

Nowinski is critical of football for its approach to head injuries: “It is probably the biggest problem in sport – you have the world’s most popular sport doing everything wrong on the international stage.”

Jeff Astle (below) played for West Brom and England in the 1960s and 70s, and suffered with Alzheimer’s disease before he died in 2002. His family launched the Justice for Jeff campaign, calling for an independent inquiry on the link between heading heavy leather footballs and brain disease.

“It’s terrible to think what he went through,” said Astle’s widow Laraine when it was confirmed her husband’s disease had been caused by football. “The job he loved in the end killed him. Everything he won, he remembered none of it.” The dry language of the coroner’s report boiled down Astle’s career of crashing headers into four words: “death by industrial disease”.

Like any industry, sport has a responsibility to look after its own.