Pete Sampras has inherited anemia
From: Paul Banik - view profile
Date: Wed, Sep 25 1996 12:00 am
The following article appeared September 23, 1996 in The Globe and
Mail. The author of the article is Tom Tebbutt. Please expand the
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For the supremely talented Pete Sampras, it is unlikely that any
opponent will prove as much of a challenge as thalassemia.
A September 10 story in The Globe and Mail speculated that the world
No.1 suffered from some
form of anemia, and it has been learned that Sampras has an inherited
condition that is almost
certainly thalassemia minor, a congenital form of anemia common among
people in the Meditteranean.
Sampras's mother, Georgia, was born in Greece, and his father, Sam, is
of Greek ancestry.
Having that thalassemia minor means the 25-year old Sampras has a low
count of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in red blood cells. "It's a
mild to moderate anemia and you lead a normal
life with no reduction in life expectancy," Toronto hematologist Dr.
George Kutas explained.
"A weekend hacker probably wouldn't even notice it."
Thalassemia minor is inherited from one parent. The much more serious
thalassemia minor results if both parents pass on the defective gene.
"Sampras would be very sick and not playing tennis if he had
thalassemia major," Kutas said
The more serious form is characterized by the need for continuing
blood transfusions, stunted growth and the many possible complications
arising from multiple transfusions.
"Thalassemia minor is a lifelong thing that people adjust to," Kutas
said. "The prognosis for
Sampras over the next few years is not much different than it has been,
because thalassemia is
set at birth and it doesn't get worse or better.
"There haven't been many world-class athletes with thalassemia, so
there's no literature
available on the subject. We don't have studies to prove it, but due to
the limited oxygen-
carrying capacity, an athlete might get to the point where he could no
longer increase his
cardiovascular output because of a limited number of red blood cells.
That would impair the
extra effort required at that top level of sport."
Inhaling oxygen, as is done in some sports, notably football, would
not be a solution for
Sampras. "That probably wouldn't help," Kutas said, "because there's
nothing wrong with the red
blood cells carrying the oxygen, it's just that he's not making enough
What could Sampras do during a match? Other than getting a transfusion
before the tournament,
there's not much you can do," Kutas said. The effects of a transfusion
(but not his own blood,
because it's already low in hemoglobin) would easily last two week of a
tournament like the U.S. Open (which Sampras won two weeks ago). But
it's unlikely he would have one because of all
the possible negative side effects.
A blood transfusion would not be considered to be blood doping, a
dangerous practice used by
some world-class athletes. "Blood doping is when you have normal
hemoglobin levels and you want
exceptional hemoglobin levels," Kutas explained. "In Sampras's case, if
he did it, it would be
to get his hemoglobin to normal levels."
What advice would Kutas have for Sampras? "It's obvious that in a long
match he gets into more trouble," he said. "One minute he's hunched over
leaning on his racquet [as against Alex
Corretja in a memorable match at the U.S. Open] and then the next he's
serving an ace at 110
miles an hour. I'd basically tell him only to push himself to a certain
Should Sampras be watching what he eats? "There's nothing he can
really do in terms of diet,"
Kutas said, "because it's a condition you have from birth-actually it's
often misdiagnosed as a
lack of iron."
In Sampras's case, if his mother had the gene, she would likely have
learned of her condition
during tests when she was pregnant with one of her three children. "A
doctor doing blood tests
can pick it up easily," Kutas said. "If hemoglobin levels are lower than
normal, they'd just
follow up with a simple test to prove it."
Sampras would have a 50-per-cent chance of passing on the condition if
he had children. However, if the child's mother also carried the gene,
there's a 25-per-cent chance that their
offspring would have thalassemia major.
As for the effects on Sampras's career, it's clear that he will
continue to have problems when he gets involved in long, exhausting
matches. But especially at tournaments such as Wimbledon where the
points are over quickly, he should be able to perform well and possibly
to his impressive total of eight Grand Slam wins.
If Sampras admits to having thalassemia minor, it would help silence
critics who have interpreted his frequent physical breakdowns as being
the result of poor preparation and conditioning.
Tom Tebbutt can be reached vie E-Mail at: ttebb...@GlobeandMail.ca