How do Olympians come back from devastating injury?

Tiffany O?Callaghan, CultureLab editor


(Image: The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons)

With its vast assortment of medical curiosities displayed in glass jars throughout a two-story atrium, the Hunterian Museum in London can bring out the curious Victorian scientist in anyone. A collection well worth a visit any time of year, now in the lead-up to the summer Olympics, the museum has additional appeal for those eager to admire more modern medical marvels.??

A collaboration between the Royal College of Surgeons, where the museum is housed, and the Medical Artists Association of Great Britain, the new Anatomy of an Athlete exhibition helps visitors visualise the way that surgeons can help elite athletes recover from serious injury - or indeed overcome physical disability - to excel in sports.

In three of the works on display, medical artists examined Olympic sports and the injuries that can befall elite athletes - or ways that they use training to increase their strength.

In a film that combines animation and live footage of an Olympic canoeist, Catherine Sulzmann demonstrates how an athlete who depends so much on upper body strength might suffer from a devastating shoulder injury. British canoeist Etienne Stott dislocated his shoulder last year while training at the Lee Valley White Water Centre, which was built especially for the 2012 Olympics. Stott also tore the cartilage in his shoulder socket (labrum), and the tendon that enables the arm to rotate (the subscapularis). In the fascinating film, Sulzmann shows not only how the injury happened, but how surgeons were able to repair Stott?s shoulder and help him return to his former strength. Less than a year after the injury, he and his teammates took home a bronze medal at the world canoe slalom championships.

For her exploration of field hockey, artist Joanna Culley went to watch Britain?s team practice.? For her contribution to the exhibition, Culley uses a life-size cut-out of British hockey player Richard Smith at practice to show how exercise can strengthen the heart and improve bone density - with blown up watercolours of the inner workings of his heart, knee and shoulder. His heart is contrasted? with a watercolour of an unhealthy heart, to demonstrate the benefits of being active. ?It?s not just Olympic athletes - I wanted it to be applicable to you and me,? Culley says.?

Emily Evans, a medical illustrator and anatomy demonstrator at the University of Cambridge, worked with a surgeon who specialises in sports injuries for her series showing how elite hurdlers might rupture a hamstring - muscles in the back of the thigh including the semimembranosus, semitendinosus and biceps femoris - and how surgeons can reattach these crucial muscles to get an athlete running, and then leaping, again.?

Perhaps the most fascinating part of this small exhibition is the extraordinary anatomically correct wax sculpture created by artists Richard Neave and Denise Smith. The sculpture is based on the Paralympic athlete Richard Whitehead, who was born without legs below the knee and competes in sprinting on steel blades in place of lower legs and feet. The scaled-down model exposes the intricate musculature beneath his skin. For the sculpture, Neave first created scaffolding of a steel rib-cage, then added layers of wax musculature bit by bit - to create ?the contours on the surface of what is lying beneath?. When Neave finished creating the sculpture, Smith painted its surface with painstaking care and the two attached scaled versions of the Ossur blades the sprinter uses to compete. The finished product makes it clear how Whitehead?s upper body is crucial to his success. ?It is the upper part of his body that swings his legs,? says Neave, who met with the athlete before creating the sculpture.

The one shortcoming of Anatomy of an Athlete is that it is a disappointingly small exhibition. Tucked away in a small gallery at the back of the Hunterian Museum, it offers some insight into the wondrous workings of the world?s most capable athletes - and the surgeries that can bring them back from serious injury - but mostly piques your curiosity to learn even more.?

Anatomy of an Athlete is on display at the Hunterian Museum until 29 September.


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