Since their inception, the Olympics have been recognized as the pinnacle of international sports. They represent a gathering of the best the world has to offer in competition, ranging from basketball to rhythm gymnastics. Gold Medals aren’t just a matter of personal achievement; they’re a point of national pride. A lifetime of training and pressure culminates in a matter of weeks, hours, minutes, or even seconds for thousands of athletes on a global stage. An event of this magnitude demands a massive support structure for each national team.
One of the most important components of that structure is the medical staff.
The Path to Olympic Medicine
Modern sports medicine has continually made athletes bigger, better, faster, and stronger than ever. Physical therapists, trainers, doctors, and surgeons the world over make a living on rescuing athletic careers from the brink, pushing boundaries, and making impossible feats of strength, speed, and finesse a reality. For a specialist in Sports Medicine, the Olympics are just as much the pinnacle of a career as they are for the athletes they care for.
The statement rings true for Dr. Mark Hutchinson, Professor of Orthopedic Sports Medicine at the University of Illinois-Chicago and Head Team Physician for all athletics at the University. Dr. Hutchinson has been a team physician for the WNBA Chicago Sky, USA Gymnastics, USA Basketball, and Team USA at two World University Games and Paralympics Games. This year, he will be joining the United States Olympic Committee Medical Staff in Rio De Janeiro.
On the significance of the invitation to the 2016 Games, Dr. Hutchinson’s answer is without hesitation. “It’s the realization of a 27 year career dream…the apex of Sports Medicine.”
Olympic doctors follow a variety of routes winding through the levels of Sports Medicine, but the path upward through the USOC is fairly well-defined.
According to Dr. Hutchinson, the basic outline typically begins with a position as a team physician. Afterward, most work in a location-based training center before traveling with a particular team. Finally, the invitation comes to participate in the full staff sent to the Games themselves. The path is precarious, too. At any stage of involvement with Olympic medicine, a doctor can be thanked for their service and sent home. Whether that means working with an Olympic team when they visit a particular city or traveling with them during their practice and selection rounds varies, but involvement can be stopped on a dime. You just answer the calls until the ultimate one comes.
This isn’t Dr. Hutchinson’s first stint with Team USA, either. He played a supporting role as Head Team Physician of the rhythmic gymnastics team during the Atlanta games back in 1996. This time around, his role is much, much larger.
The USOC medical team is built from a mix of doctors, trainers, and physical therapists. Each sport-specific team receives a limited number of credentials, which larger ones will often use to bring their own doctor, such as USA Basketball. Dr. Hutchinson’s role is unique: a single “Roamer” doctor, which may be the most difficult job of all.
This group of doctors, therapists, and trainers, including Dr. Hutchinson in Rio, comprises a section of the USOC Medical Team. Their job is to be ready to provide medical services to any and all United States athletes at the games, wherever needed. This could mean filling in where extra hands are needed, taking care of an injury when the official doctor is otherwise occupied, or catering to athletes whose team does not have a specialist in Brazil. Dr. Hutchinson says that this versatility is the greatest challenge, because it requires familiarity with many sports and their unique terminology.
“If a rhythmic gymnast comes to me and says she hurt her wrist doing a spiral, and I call it a swivel, I’ll look like an idiot,” he says.
On top of the terminology, the injuries can vary wildly. Everyone’s shoulder and knee looks different, and a long jumper won’t necessarily suffer a knee injury the same way a sprinter might. The wildly varied nature of the job is a challenge, and it’s one that Dr. Hutchinson relishes.
In a conversation about medicine at the Olympics, it’s hard not to consider the backdrop of the 2016 Summer Games. Amid concerns over the completion of venues, water pollution, and security in a country that isn’t renowned for its safety, athletes are dropping out left and right over the Zika Virus. The mosquito-borne disease is sweeping the country, and some organizations worry that the massive global attendance of the Olympics could cause a much wider outbreak.
Most of the athletes who have voiced concerns over it have been golfers; the president of the International Golf Federation has called it an overreaction. The World Health Organization has dismissed the epidemic concerns. The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said “there is no public health reason to cancel or delay the Olympics.”
“The USOC has done a wonderful job”
In the face of conflicting opinion and a media frenzy over the virus, Dr. Hutchinson says the issue gave him no pause when the call came in to join Team USA in Brazil. He points to the fact that every Olympic Games has unique facets, controversies, and concerns. There always seems to be anxiety when they draw nearer. Not just that, the USOC has done a fantastic job of addressing the problem.
“The USOC has done a wonderful job, or that’s to say, that in a bad situation they have done the best possible job,” he says. “Bill Moreau, the [Chief Medical Officer], has been very active in preparing us.”
Preparation aside, the opportunity to serve on the USOC Medical Staff is unique, a rarity. It’s nearly impossible to turn down. Most doctors only get one shot, since after one tour with the team, the expectation is to step aside for someone else.
The Doctor and the Fan
Another of the challenges of serving on the USOC Medical Staff might be focus. Men and women who specialize in sports can come face to face with athletes they root for or against day to day, or even idolize. Performing to the best of your ability requires a special kind of focus.
“Some say that doctors shouldn’t be fans, because it stops us from being objective,” Dr. Hutchinson says. “I know how to turn off the fan and become the doctor. I look at injuries critically. When a player gets hurt, I don’t think ‘oh, that looked bad’, I think ‘what got hurt there?’…I sit where the risk is greatest. If there’s a spot where a gymnast could fall and break their neck, that’s where I’ll be.”
Even when he gets to be the fan rather than the doctor, Dr. Hutchinson says he doesn’t have a favorite sport as a viewer.
“I don’t really choose a favorite sport,” he says. “What I look for are “Olympic moments.” That’s not always winning the gold medal…it can include shows of sportsmanship. Moments where athletes go beyond themselves.”
When asked about those moments, Dr. Hutchinson evokes grand memories from past Olympic Games. One is Jesse Owens in Berlin during the long jump. Not his gold medal moment, but when Luz Long, the eventual silver medalist, told him where to jump from after two faults. Owens then set a world record. While the details of that story have been disputed over the years, the one everyone agrees on is the most important; in 1938 Berlin, Owens and Long, a blond, blue-eyed German, embraced in full view of Adolf Hitler. To Dr. Hutchinson, being your best doesn’t always mean standing atop the pedestal when all is said and done.
“We live through the athletes,” he says.
For members of Team USA’s Medical Staff, the mindset isn’t really all that different from that of the athletes. On the biggest stage of sports medicine, Dr. Hutchinson plans to “leave it all on the floor”.
“There’s no reason not to leave it all down there. I’ve had the privilege to visit Rio de Janeiro before. I’ve seen the sights,” he says. “Time is going to fly by.”
“I just hope to do the best job I possibly can, and that I get to hold my hand over my heart listening to the national anthem plenty of times.”