The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, August 15, 2008


Sports medicine expert trains his eye on the Olympics

Howard “Skip” Knuttgen displays his sports medicine publications at home. (Photo by Dave Ives)

While the eyes of the world are on Beijing this month, one pair of Carlisle eyes is watching the Olympic Summer Games with more than just entertainment in mind.

For about 20 years, Howard (“Skip”) Knuttgen of Malcolm Meadows has been involved with the Olympics as a member of the Medical Commission of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Federation of Sports Medicine, which together publish volumes on sports medicine and sports science. He is coordinator of two Olympic series published by Wiley-Blackwell of Oxford, England – the Encyclopaedia of Sports Medicine and the Olympic Handbook of Sports Medicine and Science.

In addition to his publications responsibilities, Knuttgen is a senior lecturer in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, and is based at Spalding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. And, Knuttgen adds, “I am semi-retired!”

The Mosquito spoke with Knuttgen at his home, which he shares with his wife Birgitta. The couple has lived in Carlisle for 11 years, but are no strangers to the area. Both have taught at Harvard and lived in Concord for many years. “This is our last move,” he declares with satisfaction. Two series on Olympic sports

In his bright, airy living room, Knuttgen shows us several attractive volumes in the Olympic Handbook of Sports Medicine and Science. Among the 12 titles in the series are Swimming, Alpine Skiing, Volleyball, Running, Road Cycling and Rowing. All are Olympic sports, played around the world by hundreds of thousands of athletes. He adds that the IOC constantly reviews sports for their acceptance into the Olympics. Thus far rugby and golf have not made it, despite their popularity.

Knuttgen brings out the original volume in the Encyclopaedia of Sports Medicine, published in 1988. “I was one of three co-editors,” he notes. “The volume was so successful that when the IOC Medical Commission met in Lausanne [Switzerland], it made plans for more.” There are now 13 volumes in the Encyclopaedia; some titles include Endurance in Sport, Sports Injuries, Nutrition in Sport, Women in Sport and The Child and Adolescent Athlete.

The two series have different aims and different audiences, Knuttgen explains. The Encyclopaedia is a scientific reference work on a particular area of sports medicine and sports science. It is intended for sports medicine doctors, physiotherapists, athletic trainers, and graduate students in the sports sciences profession. The Handbook series presents basic clinical and scientific information on sports for team physicians and coaches, physical therapists, trainers, nutritionists and athletes. The books are written “in the style of the Scientific American, something that will be read by a broad population,” says Knuttgen, in contrast with the more technical Encyclopaedia.

Knuttgen elaborates: “We’re producing these two series for all the athletes of the world, no matter what their age and level of proficiency. It’s broader than just sports. The IOC is very interested in meeting the needs of all the people who are either involved in competitive sports and general exercise programs themselves, or the professionals who work with them.” He emphasizes that his work concentrates on the positive aspects of sports medicine, not on doping, doping control or illegal procedures to enhance physical performance.

Producing Olympic publications

“There are something like 30 steps in producing these volumes,” says Knuttgen. “I’m responsible for recruiting an editor or co-editors, and they recommend contributing authors, who are 40 or 50 of the world’s leading scientists and clinicians in sports medicine and sports science. The editor and I submit recommendations to the IOC that these people be invited to contribute articles. After Wiley-Blackwell is notified that work has begun, I stand by as a trouble-shooter. If, for example, all of a sudden an author doesn’t meet his deadline, or questions about illustrations come up.”

Photos for the two publications come from the Olympic Museum in Lausanne. Every Olympic Games produces thousands of photographs of Olympic athletes in action, says Knuttgen. Who is also the scientific adviser to the Olympic Library, a part of the museum that houses a master collection of publications relative to the Olympic Games and sports – “textbooks and reference books and all journals of sports medicine and sports science, and it’s the largest, most complete collection in the world. It’s available through Interlibrary Loan,” says Knuttgen.

A professional lifetime in sports

Originally from northern New Jersey, Knuttgen credits his father with his early interest in sports. “My dad was a member of the YMCA for 75 years. He would go to the local Y three times a week to play volleyball, court handball and swim,” Knuttgen recalls. “He introduced me to skiing and we skied in various locations in New England.”

Knuttgen graduated summa cum laude from Springfield College in 1952. The following year he earned a master’s degree in human physiology from Pennsylvania State University, where he was an assistant coach in soccer, basketball and lacrosse, sports he had played at Springfield. He then taught in a private school in Pittsburgh, leaving there to accept a position as the first full-time coach of varsity soccer and lacrosse at Ohio State University. He earned his Ph.D. in human physiology from Ohio State in 1959.

Also in 1959, Knuttgen received a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the University of Copenhagen, an auspicious turning point in his life because he met his wife on the boat from New York to Gothenburg, Sweden, Birgitta’s hometown. They were married in 1961, and came to the Boston area where Knuttgen was invited to teach applied physiology at Boston University.

In 1989 the Knuttgens left B.U. for Penn. State, where Skip was appointed director of the Center for Sports Medicine. Capping off his long and distinguished academic career, Knuttgen returned to New England in 1997 to become senior lecturer in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School and to settle down in Carlisle.

Birgitta Knuttgen holds academic credentials as well as her husband. She has a doctoral degree in Germanic languages and literature from Harvard, and taught Swedish language and culture there. She also has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Boston University, and at Penn. State she taught theater history and dramatic literature. She has retired from teaching, but actively pursues her theater interests with the Concord Players and StageSource in Boston.

The Knuttgens have two daughters who each have a small son. Daughter Annika lives in Los Angeles with her family, and Heléna, a nurse at Shriners Burn Hospital, lives in Boston and is a runner. “She ran in the Old Home Day race and will run at Great Brook Farm on August 24,” says her proud father.

Sports injuries

“As a scientist, I’m amazed at these magnificent machines that perform so well,” marvels Knuttgen, referring to Olympic athletes who are “the elite of the elite.” This raised the question of injuries – what is the most prevalent sports injury? “The major problem of the human body dealing with the challenges of sport is the vulnerable knee,” replies Knuttgen, who should know. He had a soccer injury in 1956 that bothered him his entire life until he had a total knee replacement seven years ago. “I can’t run, play lacrosse or soccer or basketball any more, but I mountain bike, I alpine ski, I cross-country ski, I kayak.” Before this interview, he took his 45-minute pre-breakfast bike ride on Carlisle roads.

He is asked if running every day is recommended. “That depends on a number of factors, beginning with genetics,” Knuttgen answers. “How ready is the body to accept the physical challenges? Age is another factor. A high school student will have to train five or six days a week in order to make the cross-country or track team. For the average person over 50 to consider running six days a week is probably not a good idea.” His advice to the runner: “read your body – you get signals that tell you you should probably take a day off between training days.”

He points out that distances and running surfaces are also factors that contribute to injuries. “One of the major contributors to running injuries to the lower extremities is people in the city who run on cement. It’s horrible. Worse than blacktop, and blacktop is worse than dirt and grass or the prepared track.” He cites another example of people with frequent injuries – those who have not run before and take up running at 35 or 40. He suggests beginning with two or three days a week for short distances, then increasing frequency and distance, “but all the time reading your body and listening for signals.”

Watching the Beijing Olympics

Although Knuttgen will be watching track and field, swimming and other events from home, he somewhat wistfully recalls past Games when he had credentials to attend any event, and “sit in a section next to the VIPs from the IOC and the sports federation that was conducting the competition. I went to see everything, [even] badminton and volleyball. At the Rome Olympics, I went to see a field hockey match between Great Britain and Pakistan – there were 12 people in the stadium! This was back in an era when the Olympics weren’t that big.”

Asked about the potential impact of Beijing’s notorious air pollution on the athletes, Knuttgen agrees that it could be a factor, “especially for someone who is sensitive to pollutants.” He points out that air quality was a factor in Athens, where officials were able to reduce vehicular traffic during the Games. He has visited Beijing seven times since 1981 and has seen improvements. “I’ve never been bothered by air quality,” he declares. He will travel to Beijing in October to present five university lectures on sports science.

Semi-retirement and staying active in work that Knuttgen calls “fascinating” – that sounds like the ideal culmination of a distinguished career in sports medicine. ∆

© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito