Olympic doctors say it's worth the sacrifices to make the team

Physicians from around the country are working behind the scenes at the Olympic Games to keep U.S. athletes in the competition.

By — Posted July 30, 2012

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As 525 U.S. Olympic athletes vie for their chance at glory and gold in the 2012 Summer Olympics, about 80 medical personnel are working in the background to help them fulfill their dreams.

Among them are physicians from around the country who are volunteering their time to support the U.S. team. To do so, they must be willing to leave their practices for weeks at a time, to work long shifts under grueling, high-stakes conditions for little or no pay.


Dr. Donaldson

Physicians working the games say it’s all worth it for the chance to be part of a global event and work with some of the world’s most elite athletes.

“It’s worth the sacrifices,” said Peter Donaldson, MD, a U.S. team physician, sports medicine specialist and assistant professor at Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine in Rochester, Mich. “I’ll be grinding away in clinic for the rest of my life, but there are few opportunities that come up in life that are as unique as this.”

But similar to the athletes, competition to become a team physician is tight. Dr. Donaldson said he has been working seven years to have the privilege to serve.


Dr. Rodeo

U.S. team physicians must have a strong sports medicine background, said Scott A. Rodeo, MD. Dr. Rodeo is a team physician for the U.S. Olympic swim team and an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. He said most team physicians start by working with a particular sport. They volunteer at one of the country’s three Olympic training centers then work domestic competitions and move up to international competitions, such as the World Championships or Pan American Games, he said.

Dr. Donaldson said he spent two weeks in 2008 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., being closely evaluated by members of the U.S. Olympic Committee. They observed his medical skills, how he worked under pressure, and how well he communicated with athletes and coaches. Since then, he has worked at several events, including a national hockey tournament, the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Vancouver, and the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.

“I went through many stages to get to this point,” Dr. Donaldson said. “This will be my first Olympics, so that’s exciting.”


Dr. Brand

Erik Brand, MD, sports medicine fellow at Harvard Medical School Dept. of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Spaulding Hospital in Massachusetts, is working his first summer Olympics. He is volunteering with the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. For the Olympics, Dr. Brand is stationed at the Athlete’s Village Polyclinic, where he works nine-hour shifts treating athletes from around the globe. He’s assigned to cover various venues as needed, and also works at the Paralympics’s Aquatics Center, where he said he is especially excited to see seven-time gold medalist swimmer Jessica Long compete.

Dr. Brand applied to volunteer in October 2010, but wasn’t offered a position until 18 months later. In the meantime, he took a gamble and spent thousands of dollars undergoing the long process to get the British medical license he needed to work the games. As a volunteer for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Dr. Brand had to be licensed by the General Medical Council, which regulates doctors in the U.K. To volunteer as a team physician working for the U.S. Olympic Committee, doctors should have an unrestricted medical license in the U.S.

“There was a lot of uncertainty, and it was certainly a risk to commit this much time to an opportunity that might not work out,” Dr. Brand said. “Thank goodness it did!”

Challenging circumstances

Dr. Donaldson arrived in London on July 18 and plans to stay through Aug. 11. He rotates among different event venues and the main medical clinic and is embedded with the U.S. equestrian team. “It’s a lot of 16-hour-plus days, and we’re on call,” Dr. Donaldson said. “You’re really busy, you soak it all up, and then after it’s all over, you go home and you sleep.”

Dr. Brand said working with elite athletes is both challenging and rewarding. For physicians, it’s an opportunity to work with a rare class of patients who are very in tune with their bodies, he said.

“The pressure is high when the athletes and support staff have made such a huge investment and have such a finite opportunity to make it pay off,” Dr. Brand said.

In many cases, physicians have to make critical decisions in the heat of competition, said Christine Lawless, MD, a team physician for U.S. Figure Skating. She spoke July 23 on behalf of the American College of Cardiology Sports and Exercise Cardiology Council at a medical conference in Glasgow, Scotland, held in conjunction with the Olympics.

“Sometimes there are up to 30,000 medical volunteers to cover the Olympics,” said Dr. Lawless, director of athlete heart research at the University of Nebraska. “When it comes to return-to-play decisions, the physicians really have to strike a balance and weigh the risks to the athlete. The Olympians are there because they have worked 20 years to be there. The doctor may make the decision [for them] not to participate, but the athlete is going to be inclined to stay in the game.”

The rewards of service

As a former competitive swimmer, Dr. Rodeo said he understands the years of dedication and sacrifice the athletes have made to reach this level of competition.

“It is an honor to support these athletes in achieving their athletic goals,” he said.

This is Dr. Rodeo’s third Olympics. He said some of his most memorable experiences were supporting the U.S. swimming team at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing when Michael Phelps won eight gold medals, and marching in the opening ceremonies at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.

Dr. Brand volunteered at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and said the atmosphere there was electric. He said he’s excited to serve again this summer.

“I believe in the power of sport to bring communities together,” Dr. Brand said. “It is an opportunity for nations to set aside differences and share dialogue, common values, and see eye-to-eye on a level playing field, literally.”

Dr. Donaldson said the Olympics is similar to other major sporting events he’s worked, only much bigger.

“The games experiences I’ve had have all been a smaller microcosm of the world coming together, but I think nothing kind of does that like the Olympics,” he said. “We’ll be working hard, but we’ll be having fun. The life experience of it makes it worthwhile.”

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External links

“Going Global: 2012 Olympics,” reports from Erik Brand, MD, on volunteering at the Summer Olympics (link)

2012 Olympic Games in London (link)

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