Snooker's Attitude to Illness is an Inspiration

09/05/2012 10:22 BST | Updated 07/07/2012 10:12 BST

The final of the 2012 World Snooker Championship featured only one champion: Ronnie O'Sullivan. But it featured two heroes.

O'Sullivan and his opponent, Ali Carter, proved themselves to be heroes not so much for surviving 17 days of top-class snooker inside Sheffield's Crucible Theatre but for surviving the chronic ailments that almost kept them from it.

After O'Sullivan won, his first thanks went to Dr Steve Peters, the celebrated consultant psychiatrist and sports psychologist whose work over the last year has helped O'Sullivan control the cruel depression that has often threatened to extinguish snooker's brightest talent.

When O'Sullivan first met with Dr Peters, he wanted to retire. Now, he is world champion. When he lifted the World Championship trophy, and gave to a psychiatrist the thanks usually given to a coach or manager, it was a triumphant moment for snooker, for sport, and for international awareness of mental health.

Carter, too, has doctors to thank for his success in Sheffield. He, too, has recently contemplated retirement because of health troubles that seemed insurmountable: he has Crohn's, the incurable and often agonising bowel disease.

That Carter can be a professional sportsman at all is remarkable; that he can finish second in his sport's richest tournament is mildly miraculous. He made it to the World Championship final through a combination of medical support, discipline, diet and determination. When he accepted his second-place cheque, it was a triumphant moment for all of us who struggle against long-term physical illness.

But snooker has not always been a beacon of fair treatment for the chronically ill. O'Sullivan's mental health issues are as well-documented as any in the history of sport, and yet he has been criticised for them by snooker's fans and penalised for them by its governing body.

At the 2007 UK Championship, during the early stages of his quarter-final with Stephen Hendry, O'Sullivan was attacked by such anguish that he signalled to the referee that he was forfeiting the match, shook Hendry's hand and left the arena.

Had his collapse been physical instead of mental, had he suddenly torn a muscle or been afflicted by a bout of explosive diarrhoea, he would have received only sympathy. But because his pain was psychological, he was derided.

He was docked 900 ranking points and fined £21,000. In one of snooker's most shameful moments, one of its greatest stars was punished for suffering the symptoms of the chronic illness that has often endangered his livelihood and perhaps even endangered his life.

Just a few years later, however, snooker's attitude to mental illness seems far more enlightened. O'Sullivan's depression is now discussed openly and, in general, without prejudice on television and in the press, and so are the mental health issues faced by former world champion Graeme Dott.

Like O'Sullivan, Dott has come close to retirement because of his battles with depression's internal terrorism and, like O'Sullivan, he has endured and returned to the summit of his sport. In publically discussing the weakness caused by his depression, Dott has showed himself to be a man of immense strength. He has also, I hope, made himself a hero to many who would not ordinarily look to snooker players for inspiration.

But Dott, O'Sullivan and Carter are not isolated cases. Snooker has several players who have overcome conditions that would seem certain to prevent them competing at its highest levels.

Joe Swail, once one of the world's top ten players, has suffered extensive hearing loss since birth. Like many who have conquered the disadvantages of disability, his attitude is both entirely self-effacing and entirely free of self-pity. He even jokes that his partial deafness is an advantage: to play properly, snooker players need complete quiet--and Swail carries quietness wherever he goes.

Peter Ebdon has a condition that may seem slight compared to severe depression, partial deafness or Crohn's disease, but his disability is perhaps the worst a snooker player could suffer: colour blindness. In 2002, without being able to properly tell which colour was which, Ebdon became world champion in a sport that revolves around potting, in a set order, differently coloured balls that scatter across a 12x6-foot table.

Imagine playing a snooker video game. Your opponent is playing on full-colour screen; you are playing on a black and white TV. Now imagine you have to play that way for a living. That is something like the obstacle Ebdon climbed over to become one of the best snooker players of his generation.

As a disabled sportswriter, the 2007 UK Snooker Championship, and the way Ronnie O'Sullivan was treated after it, made me dislike a sport I adored. Since then, watching the personal triumphs of O'Sullivan, Swail, Dott, Carter, Ebdon and others, and hearing the increasingly sensitive way their conditions are discussed by those inside snooker, my affection for the sport has fully returned.

At present, snooker is an inspiration to anyone who cares both about sport and about social equality for the disabled and chronically ill. Let us hope it continues to be so, and that every other sport follows its example.