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Sakari Orava, the ‘Miracle Doctor’ to sports stars

Helsinki (AFP) – Injured athletes from David Beckham to Ousmane Dembele have over the years put their careers, and bodies, under the trusted knife of Finnish surgeon Sakari Orava, known in sporting circles as the “Miracle Doctor”.

Spanish runner Marta Dominguez, who was treated by Orava in 2004 after an injury, compared him to “God”.

On Tuesday, Orava successfully operated on Barcelona’s club-record signing Dembele in Helsinki to repair a torn left hamstring.

Born in 1945 in Kokkola, on the Finnish shores of the Baltic Sea, Orava is one of the world’s most renowned experts on tendon and muscle injuries.

Aged 72, “Dr House” — as Finnish magazine Kauppalehti dubbed him — has performed some 25,000 operations in his more than 40-year career, with hundreds of top athletes in all disciplines going under his scalpel.

“Most of my patients are regular people with regular conditions. Today, for example, I saw 14 patients and only four were professional athletes,” he writes modestly on the website of the NEO hospital in Turku, in southwestern Finland.

– From boxing champ to professor –

In his daily work he now wears surgical rubber gloves, but his hands started out in boxing gloves: in 1962, at age 17 and weighing in at 54 kilos, he won the Finnish national title. 

Orava, whose name means “squirrel” in Finnish, went on to graduate from the University of Oulu’s medical school in 1972, specialising in general surgery in 1977 before moving on to orthopaedic surgery in 1980 and sports medicine in 1986. 

In 1984, he was appointed senior lecturer in orthopaedics and traumatology at the University of Oulu, and in 1995 as senior lecturer in sports traumatology at the University of Turku.

In 2000, the Spanish School of Sports Traumatology at the University of Murcia made him an honorary professor.

In charge of the health of Finnish athletes at four Olympic Games from 1988 until 2000, Orava also received the honorary title of professor from Finland’s then president Tarja Halonen in 2001.

– Beckham and Guardiola –

Football players such as Didier Deschamps, Marco van Basten and Thomas Vermaelen, track stars Merlene Ottey and Haile Gebrselassie have all been treated by the Finn’s golden touch.

And the top European clubs, such as Real Madrid, Sevilla, Chelsea, Juventus and Barcelona, all appear on his list of “patients”.

It was Orava who operated on Spain’s Pep Guardiola, now Manchester City coach, when he suffered one of the biggest injuries of his career in 1998 — a torn biceps femoris in his left thigh, similar to Dembele.

Orava has always considered that injury one of the hardest he ever treated. “It was a tear that was difficult to detect,” he explained to Spanish daily El Mundo.

Guardiola had asked the doctor if he had any chance of ever playing again. “When I told him yes, I could see in his eyes that this answer was one of the most important in his life,” he recalled.

But perhaps the surgery that garnered Orava the most media attention was the one he performed on David Beckham.

The then AC Milan midfielder, at the time aged 34, had to undergo surgery on a torn Achilles tendon in March 2010, just three months before the start of the World Cup in South Africa. 

Orava’s diagnosis was unequivocal: Beckham had “no chance” of taking part in the tournament, ruling he “needed many months to recover”.

Beckham never played for England again.

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