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Why Diabetes Doesn't Mean Turning Your Back On Professional Sports

Picture of Luke Bradshaw
Sports Editor
Updated: 14 November 2016
While diabetes presents serious risks to health, there have been a number of elite athletes that have balanced the condition with successful careers at the top of their game. It may require great diligence, but we explore how diabetes doesn’t have to prevent a life in professional sport.

According to the International Diabetes Federation, 415 million people have the condition worldwide – roughly one in 11 adults. In the United Kingdom 3.5 million people have diabetes, but once you include those that are unaware that they have the condition the number grows to over 4 million.

The condition develops “when glucose can’t enter the body’s cells to be used as fuel.” This happens if there no insulin produced to unlock those cells (type 1), or if insulin is produced but is either insufficient or isn’t working properly (type 2).

There have been athletes in the sporting world who have achieved huge success, despite suffering from the condition.

Tennis greats Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe were both diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, the latter while still competing on the court. Five-time Olympic gold medalist Sir Steven Redgrave, former Tottenham Hotspur captain Gary Mabbutt and a number of different baseball, American football and ice hockey players have all gone on to have long careers within elite sport while managing the condition.

Billie Jean King was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2007.
Billie Jean King was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2007. | © Gage Skidmore @flickr.com

There is even a professional cycling team – Team Novo Nordisk – who are comprised entirely of riders with diabetes, as well as having runners and triathletes on their books.

Participating in sport is encouraged for diabetics because of the health benefits that it brings, among them an improved sensitivity to insulin. That said, the rigours of professional sport mean that certain obstacles need to be overcome. In something as physically demanding as rugby, where the power and endurance needed requires the intake of starchy carbohydrates in high quantity, insulin management is vital to ensure those carbs are broken down.

Even something as seemingly small as wearing the correct footwear has to be more considered. Raised blood sugar can cause problems with blood circulation and as a result diabetics can experience more problems with their legs and feet.

Worcester Warriors’ Chris Pennell was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 19. He’d been playing professional rugby for a year and been doing well, but he was struggling to put weight on and his club were concerned he may not be big enough to compete at the highest level.

After the club carried out routine blood tests it was apparent Pennell’s blood glucose was abnormally high and a second test confirmed his diabetic diagnosis.

Chris Pennell in action against Bristol
Chris Pennell in action against Bristol | © Worcester Warriors

Today his daily routine includes regular checks of his blood sugar levels to ensure that it remains as stable as possible during training, gym sessions and matches.

“I think it took me a couple of years to get to grips with what was actually going on,” Pennell told Culture Trip. “I was very lucky in terms of the help that I received, because in the beginning I could sit out training sessions or have five minutes to sort my glucose levels out, and now that I’m used to it, it’s only a case of minor tweaks so doesn’t affect things too much.”

On being diagnosed, the first thing that went through Pennell’s mind was understandably “what does this mean?” – much like any other young athlete upon discovering they are diabetic. He explains that, from the off, there was plenty of support; “The doctor at the time – who was called Terry Gaspar – was exceptional, and he had obviously beaten me to it in terms of googling what it meant. He was incredibly reassuring and he made sure it didn’t stop me doing what I wanted to do. The focus was definitely on what I could do, not what I couldn’t.”

It’s an attitude that is stressed for anyone that has diabetes. While the condition needs to be managed, and can be dangerous if it isn’t, there needn’t be any restrictions on lifestyle. Pennell said that just seeing Sir Steven Redgrave’s name referenced with the condition was reassuring enough – “he’s done okay for himself, hasn’t he?” – and having doctors and nutritionists at Worcester supporting him was extremely significant in getting to grips with being diagnosed.

Medical staff offering guidance is one thing, but what about teammates? “Pretty much to a man they all asked questions and wanted to gain a better understanding of what it entailed,” Pennell explains, “And then obviously, and most pleasingly, they all take the piss out of you. It’s always part of it, but I think you have to have a sense of humour when dealing with things like this. It makes a big difference.”

It is important to stress that the life of a professional athlete lends itself well to being a good diabetic; being fit, active and eating a healthy diet are all key to helping with the condition.

It’s part of the advice that Pennell provides for any young sportsmen and women who have been diagnosed: “Living a healthy, active lifestyle is the best way to live with it. Test yourself as much as possible because that’ the fastest way to learn, but ultimately, don’t allow your diabetes to stop you doing what you want to do.”

For more information on World Diabetes Day head to the International Diabetes Federation.