In the square in front of the Gothic-style town hall in Manchester, England, a thousand athletes from thirty-five countries had gathered for the opening ceremony of an international games event. Like the Olympics, each team carried its country's flag. Some teams, such as the U.S., had many members. Iceland had one. Some competitors were born athletes, bouncing on their toes, impatient to start. Others were in it for the fun. The common element was that, at one time, none of them could have dreamed of being there. All had received a transplant and had needed to become fit enough to face the physical and mental stress of a well-publicized week of contests, the World Transplant Games.
Fernando Rodriguez from Argentina spent seven years in a wheelchair before being given a new heart. He was there to compete in the 1,500-meter race and 5-kilometer walk. Paula Burke, a new mother of twins, received a kidney from her father twenty years ago and had gone on to become a badminton champion. Mark Cocks, from Australia, was once a top-class tennis player, but at twenty-two his kidneys began to fail. At one time he was blind and needed two transplants, one from his sister Julie. Since then he has competed regularly in these games. Jerry Conrad from Arkansas had two heart transplants and was in his seventh games. Anders Billstrom of Sweden had come with his father and mother, each of whom had donated a kidney.
"At one time many contestants were often too ill to take serious exercise, never mind engage in competitive sport," Christiaan Barnard, who was there, commented. Now they were competing in a full range of the classic events, including the 5,000 meters, 4 ¥ 400 relay, and the shot put with a sixteen-pound weight. The 50-meter dash included a two-to-five-year group, all of them recipients. There was an air of serious purpose about it. "Track and field rules will be enforced," the program of the similar U.S. national transplantation games warns. "Competitors will be disqualified for failure to observe the rules."
Not all of them went full out. Eleanor's most enduring memory of the Lord Mayor of Manchester's buffet dinner was that by the time she got to the chocolate cake the competitors had eaten it all, and enough cigarettes were being lit to bring on the need for a heart transplant for any athletic coach. But the overall impression was of men and women once at death's door chasing loose balls around the tennis court, fighting fatigue in grueling long distance races, and pushing themselves to the limit in the swimming pool, as their supporters, who were sometimes their donor families, yelled themselves hoarse with pride.
We were there primarily to do interviews and, for some [of them], we were with two British families who had also donated organs when their children died. I talked to both fathers, strong, clear-sighted men dealing, like me, with something for which they had had no preparation. Neither was given to demonstrativeness and communicated quietly the pain of ultimate separation. "It's the first thing I think of every morning," Joe, an ex-miner, told me. How familiar that was. He and his wife, Florence, had donated their daughter Joanne's organs because, seeing a television ad, she had filled in a donor's card.
Martin, the other father, told me his son, Nicky, was riding his bicycle and had been hit by a truck. "I don't know how it happened. You just don't know who to blame." "Well," I said, "you blame yourself when these things happen, don't you?" "You do," he said quietly and, through his composure, I glimpsed the doubts that torture all of us who have said to ourselves sentences that start: "If only-"