So you want to be an Olympic team physician? Well, the road to get there is a long and grueling process. You must be willing to leave your practice for weeks at a time, and the majority of physicians volunteer or are paid minimally for their services. You’ll work long shifts under extremely taxing conditions. But you will belong to an elite group of medical professionals. (The 2012 Summer Olympics staffed about 80 medical professionals to take care of 525 Olympic athletes.) Physicians who do make the grade say it’s worth it for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of being an integral part of the world’s biggest sporting event.
To work for the US Olympic Committee (USOC), a physician must first possess an unrestricted medical license. Most physicians who qualify have a solid sports medicine background, having treated professional athletes in a specific sport, each of which has its own national governing body. Health care professionals first contact their sport-specific national governing body and ask to be selected for what can only be termed as “tryouts” for the Olympic medical team. After they’re recommended by the national governing body of the particular sport, they need to apply to the USOC. Some physicians who apply to be an Olympic team doctor are former competitive athletes at a high level, which gives them a deeper perspective when treating athletes.
The USOC invites applicants to one of its 3 training facilities (Colorado Springs, CO; Lake Placid, NY; Chula Vista, CA) for a 2-week evaluation period. Once there, medical skills are evaluated. The Committee is also looking to see how well physicians work under pressure, and how well they communicate and interact with elite athletes, coaches, and trainers. Every interaction is designed to see if they’d make a good fit on the Olympic medical team.
If they pass the grade, the next move may be to work an internship at domestic national competitions held at one of the nation’s Olympic training centers, then work their way up to international competitions such as world championships, the Pan American Games, or the Paralympics. Then they’ll have a better chance of being selected for the Olympic games and might be on their way to Olympic Village.
Once there, doctors are embedded with their specific sport team, but many also serve in the US medical clinic. Within the Olympic Village, which is akin to a small city, a full-service medical clinic is set up for American athletes as a home base for clinical care. The full health care team not only consists of physicians who specialize in sports medicine but also includes orthopedic surgeons, general practitioners, family practitioners, physical therapists, massage therapists, chiropractors, and dentists. Top-notch medical facilities are set up within the medical clinic, including a complete radiographic suite so that athletes can get any necessary diagnostic tests immediately.
The first course of business is to study each athlete’s complete medical history. In the US, the players were taken care of by their primary care physicians, but now, Olympic health care professionals must take over their care and help them as they prepare for their events. Working with elite athletes can be both challenging and rewarding. Physicians can be assigned dozens of athletes to manage. It’s about a 9-hour workday, with a fair share of 16-hour days, besides being on-call virtually 24/7. The athletes have fine-tuned their bodies for peak performance. They’ve made extreme sacrifices to reach the Olympics and the stakes are high. The atmosphere is intense, but it all adds to the adrenalin rush for the medical staff.
Members of the US Olympic medical team also get to meet and sometimes treat athletes from other countries. In addition, doctors get a chance to compare treatment and rehabilitation regimens from different countries.
Drug testing also plays a big role
The medical clinic also houses a full-time pharmacy. Olympic doctors must be keenly aware of the list of banned substances. For instance, the common over-the-counter drug pseudoephedrine would return a positive drug test, so it must be avoided. All this occurs under the strict watch of the US Anti-Doping Agency. Diuretics also turn up positive on a drug test, so they must be eliminated or equivalent substitutes must be prescribed. After each sporting event, the top 5 finishers are tested, as well as other random athletes. Protocols must be followed very carefully; both urine and blood samples are analyzed. Olympic doctors accompany athletes during the drug testing process. Drug testing is not only performed after each event; it can occur randomly, at any time of day or night.
During the games, physicians can cover events in the morning, afternoon, and at night. It sounds like a long day, and it is, but don’t forget, these clinicians have a front-row seat to witness the world-class athletes they’ve treated. They basically shadow the athletes, from the training room, to pre-game warm-up, to the actual venue. However, they are also working side by side with a team of health care practitioners, each with their own expertise, background, and perspective. Whether it’s an ice bath, therapeutic massage, chiropractic session, or recovery workout, different specialists work on the team with one common goal: to help their athletes stay on top of their game and prepare them for peak performance during their specific events.
An Olympic doctor’s duties are wide ranging. Minor sports-related injuries abound, sustained to the fingers, wrists, and elbows. Dehydration is always a concern, so hydration levels are monitored regularly. Mineral deficiencies are checked frequently to avoid debilitating muscle cramps. Repair and recovery of the body after workouts is another key factor. Sports nutritionists supply customized vitamin and mineral supplementation for each athlete, not only to increase endurance and stamina but also to help minimize damage to the body and speed the repair and recovery process.
Medical staff members must be fully prepared and ready to respond to emergencies on a moment’s notice. They will most likely treat common injuries related to their specific sport. For example, a doctor embedded with the diving team will typically see common injuries divers sustain, such as shoulder and lumbar spine injuries. They also need to be prepared to treat more serious injuries, such as a head or spinal injury that could occur from contact with the diving platform. Equipment must be in place for initial immobilization and treatment of such traumas. And at times, minor surgeries must be performed. Of course, plans are in place to travel to local hospitals for serious emergencies.
It’s not only sports injuries with which the doctors have to deal. Common maladies such as gastrointestinal problems, sinusitis, upper respiratory conditions, or coughs and sore throats occur frequently. Another common problem is traveler’s diarrhea; it’s almost expected, until bodies adjust to changes in food and water in a new environment.
And the fact that they are physicians by trade, many times they’re called upon to treat members of an athlete’s family, Olympic officials, trainers, and even media personnel for any sickness or injury that may arise at any time during the course of the 3-week event.
Walking into an Olympic stadium is truly a powerful emotional experience. Medical members who’ve experienced the feeling say that participating in the closing ceremonies is just as exhilarating as parading in the opening ceremonies. One Olympic doctor remarked that the best part of the closing ceremony was the chance to mingle with many of the athletes who he treated in preparation for battle and had come to know over the previous few weeks.
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