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UON Professor’s ‘knife in the fast lane’ with elite sports stars

Date 2.11.2020

A University Professor has put pen to paper to recount his fascinating, 40-year career ‘fixing’ famous sportspeople and help raise cash for a charity close to his heart.

Bill Ribbans is an orthopaedic surgeon and chief medical officer for Northamptonshire County Cricket Club, but he also works part-time at the University of Northampton.

Since 2010 he has been the University’s Professor of Sports Medicine, specifically looking after postgraduate students, such as those studying for a PhD or MPhil.

Of his time with the University, he says: “My association with UON stretches back to 2005 when I was a Visiting Professor. My work is almost exclusively research based and I also help raise the profile of the University with research publications and global lecturing stints.

“Aside from guiding and supporting some excellent students, I’m very proud to have helped UON establish a close link with the University of Cape Town and develop the genetics research programme for musculoskeletal injury.”

His book ‘Knife in the Fast Lane’ – out to buy from major bookstores and also available online – charts the history of care for professional sportspeople from the perspective of a surgeon who has operated on some of the biggest names in sports, helping them on their way to win big on the world stage.

The book explores the legal minefields and ethical dilemmas faced by medics in sport and deals with current issues like concussion, depression, drug-taking and the dangers of sporting academies.

It also asks whether the resources poured into elite medical care have reduced harm to athletes or made them so fit, fast and strong that it threatens their long-term health, as well as the early impact of COVID-19 on sport.

On his medical career, Bill says: “I loved surgery as a student and wanted to be able to repair broken bones, worn out joints, ligaments and tendons, especially in sports people. I often find that it is not the medical side of the case that is complex, but the circumstances around it – such as trying to make sure someone is fit for world cups or the Olympics and considerations around this. But, after all of the treatment is done, there is no greater pleasure than seeing people succeed in their sport after I have operated on them.

“There are so many incredible cases I’ve worked on it’s difficult to choose ‘favourite’ examples but, if I were to be pushed, Michael Schumacher winning five consecutive Formula 1 titles after fixing his broken leg or Greg Rutherford leaping to Olympic gold after ankle surgery.

On writing the book, he adds: “It was very fulfilling to reflect on my thoughts and experiences and to try to order them and is something I have wanted to do for the last 10 years. It took me four years to write it and find the right publisher!

“The book covers quite a lot of ground, but I have looked after world champions across eight different sports and also athletes with 27 Olympic medals between them.

“I’m just very glad to see everything written down, for posterity perhaps but certainly because I think the issues at stake in sports medicine are important issues to consider. It would be interesting to take some of this off the page and into the learning atmosphere of the University and discuss these topics with our undergraduate students in sports and clinical courses.”

Proceeds from sales of the book will go toward Prostate Cancer UK, a charity Bill is keen to support following a personal health scare: “I was diagnosed with prostate cancer myself two years ago and have undergone treatment. I feel strongly in the importance of raising the profile of the disease and encouraging men to be screened.

“Annually, more men die of prostate cancer than women of breast cancer in our country, a sobering statistic. I hope ‘Knife in the Fast Lane’ will help toward increasing our understanding of prostate cancer and the development of such things as better diagnostics and testing.”