Reclaiming the Memory of Ronaldo Luis Nazario

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This past weekend, Real Madrid paid tribute to “O Fenomeno”, the Brazilian Ronaldo that lit Europe afire with dazzling goals. Ronaldo’s goals and titles speak for themselves. His career also has a fantastic counterfactual “what if” moment – the convulsive fit suffered just before the 1998 World Cup final. Only in videogames will we ever see a fit and unstoppable Ronaldo run circles around Lilian Thuram and round Fabian Barthez with ease. Okay, so it would not have been quite like that. But ask Oliver Kahn about Ronaldo’s performance in World Cup finals.

History will hopefully omit the last and tragic chapter in Ronaldo’s career: the decline. Yet a new fact has shed light on his earlier struggles with weight: Ronnie suffers from hypothyroidism. Armed with knowledge, we must take a look back at the nasty media criticisms and the alleged sports medicine professionals that failed to notice.

First, a few facts about hypothyroidism. The Mayo Clinic notes that hypthyroidism is when the thyroid gland produces too much thyroid, affecting your metabolism and result in changes in weight and potentially irregular heartbeats. The Mayo Clinic notes that hypthyroidism is only serious if not diagnosed and left untreated. So, this begs the question – how did world class sports medicine doctors at the top European clubs not figure this out?

Or did they?

Like all top footballers, Ronaldo experienced a pattern of club-hopping. However, one of the greatest puzzles of his career is why Barca would pay a then record fee to sign him, enjoy a glorious year in which he scored 30 goals, and then immediately sell him to Inter. Granted, he was a 20 year old World Player of the Year, so negotiations were difficult.

But did the Barcelona medical staff detect a health problem not apparent to the public eye? Ronaldo succeeded at Inter before his knees began to buckle from step-overs. Yet I wonder – how many clubs knew of his hyperthyroidism yet hid it, hoping to cash in on a transfer and hoping the other side overlooked the problem during the routine medical?

Hypothyroidism also may explain his episodic problem the night before the 1998 World Cup final. The Mayo Clinic notes that some of the symptoms include tachycardia (rapid heartbeat), arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat),  tremors, sweating, and fatigue. Did the Brazilian national team doctors deduce the problem? Did they suspect hyperthyroidism? Did Inter Milan? We may never know. The media never heard a whisper. Nor did the public. Viewed through the “bioethical lens” espoused by Gabriele Marcotti in Issue Zero of the Blizzard, the problem was transparency.

Similar issues cloud the land of American Football. For decades, the scope and gravity of concussions have been conveniently swept under the rug. Teams also fib in their injury reports, hoping to gain a competitive advantage for that relevant week. The marketplace poses a serious dilemma for any bioethical lens in sports. It was not in Ronaldo’s financial interest to have the disease – it would decrease his earning power and transfer value. It was also not in any club’s financial interest – they would recoup less money for a prized asset in the transfer market. This tension combines with the human element – Ronaldo loved the sport, played with a kid’s enthusiasm, and could optimistically wish away a doctor’s bad diagnosis. Who doesn’t know somebody in a similar situation?

So this whole time El Fenomeno had hyperthyroidism and either nobody knew or nobody wanted us to know.

Now we turn the critical lens on ourselves and the media. The Mayo Clinic notes that one of the symptoms of hyperthyroidism is an enlarged goiter, which appears as swelling at the base of the neck. How many times did you see Ronaldo in a Real shirt and join the Marca catcalls of “Ronaldo el Gordo?”

Ronaldo put it best – “when I score, I’m grande, but when I don’t, I’m gordo.” Pele, that eternal bastion of wisdom, repeatedly criticized Ronie for his weight. Fabio Capello also called him out. And, of course, I myself am guilty of poking fun at Ronaldo in a haiku a few years back. But I want to apologize. Ronaldo’s skill always blew me away and I had no clue he suffered from hypthyroidism. I am sorry for what I wrote. And my respect for Ronie has only grown.

Don’t hold your breath in expectation of apologies from Capello, Pele, or Marca. But hopefully soccer can find a way to incorporate transparency and players’ health into the current business model. Fans know too well the tragedy that can strike when a heart condition is not diagnosed or treated: Foe, Puerta, and Jarque.

In terms of the fat Ronie ridicule, as a society, we gloss over genetics and point fingers when a person fails to meet a prototype for height and weight. Athletes represent the apex of our glorious body myth. Yet we deceive ourselves. Diet and exercise can sometimes shave pounds off a body, but will never supplant the human genome. So Ronaldo got caught up in this puritanical-anti-excess-pounds culture of masochism and blame. He also had surgically repaired knees and the long shadow of his past great self.

So let’s re-write the last chapter in Ronaldo’s career. Ronie overcame knee surgeries to score wonderful goals and become a world champion. But he also overcame an undiagnosed (?) medical condition and our unfounded, hateful criticism. And for that alone he deserves our love now more than ever.

3 thoughts on “Reclaiming the Memory of Ronaldo Luis Nazario

  1. Fantastic stuff Elliott. I admit I’ve poked fun at Ronaldo and called him Fat Ronaldo (as recently as, er, Saturday) but knowing he suffers from hypothyroidism really sheds light on a lot of ‘mysteries’ about his career, the most obvious being his weight gain. This is a condition you have for life and I have so much admiration for him. I hope generations after us look back and remember him for his brilliance in front of the goal, not for the ‘decline’.

  2. A pleasure to read.

    However, simply for the sake of accuracy, I think you’re confusing hypo- and hyper-thyroidism. Ronaldo said he had hypothyroidism, which is where your thyroid gland produces not enough thyroid hormone, not too much. It is, as you said, associated with significant weight gain, along with fatigue and other symptoms.

    Hyperthyroidism (where your thyroid gland produces too much hormone) is associated with weight loss and, as you noted above, tachycardia and other cardiac rhythm abnormalities.

    I think Ronaldo noted that thyroid hormones are considered a banned substance in football–probably because of their effects with regards to increased metabolism. Rather than clubs having missed the diagnosis, they probably told Ronaldo that, if he wanted to continue playing, that he wasn’t going to be able to take the necessary medication.

    I do wonder though- don’t clubs usually conduct medicals before finally accepting players? If that is the case, then they would theoretically find out about medical conditions prior to transfers. How would ‘selling clubs’ benefit from keeping Ronaldo’s condition a secret?

  3. Amanda,

    we all played a part in the-mock-Ronaldo bandwagon. And let’s all just forget about that transvestite-extortion incident, capiche?


    thanks so much for clarifying the medical issue! I did my best to decipher the Mayo clinic website, but am as far from an M.D. as possible. Plus, nobody I personally know has suffered from this medical problem.

    In terms of the media, you’d think his medical condition would have been leaked to the press ages ago. Unless, of course, a club thought that his condition would not show up in a routine medical. I assume his inability to receive treatment would be a bit of a Scarlet Letter in a sport based on physical health. Right? If I could buy a good car that needed an oil change every 1,000 miles, but the rules in my state prevented oil changes every 1,000 miles, I’d think twice before buying the car.

    Do you know the standard protocol for medicals? Would that include thyroid evaluations? My basic understanding is that the players perform exercises to check on joints around the feet, ankles, knees, and lungs, but not very much blood work or other testing is done. Somebody in the know, please “in the know” us!