The photos, videos and broadcasts now emerging from Rio show us the full range of human emotion. Pure joy, crushing despair, and unprecedented achievements are being captured and beamed to us almost constantly while the Greatest Show on Earth is underway.
These pictures give us a glimpse inside athletes’ hearts and minds… but what about their bodies?
The inner workings of athletes’ joints, muscles and vessels are of obvious interest to team doctors. But it has not always been easy to get a clear picture, nor have sports teams always had the best medical resources available to them.
“[In 1984], there was just a team doctor and maybe a physiotherapist. That was pretty much it,” remembers Dr. Richard Budgett , 1984 Olympic gold medallist and medical and scientific director to the International Olympic Committee. “There was no multidisciplinary team. We really had no knowledge of nutrition or recovery compared to what we have now… we were very much on our own.”
While medical imaging won’t necessarily reveal what separates the world’s finest athletes from the rest of us mere mortals, the technology is constantly getting better at revealing what goes wrong in their bodies, allowing doctors to improve their diagnoses and the treatments they prescribe as a result.
“We are dealing with professional sportspeople here,” said Dr. Philippe Le Van, Chief Medical Officer for the French Olympic Committee. “It is very important that we have total confidence in our diagnoses, because as team doctors we often have to make decisions that seriously impact them.” Along with a team of 30 doctors and 54 physiotherapists, Dr. Le Van is making sure the French team is given the best chance to succeed at this year’s Olympic Games.
“With MRI, we use it both before and after competitions,” added Dr. Le Van. “We use it to make sure the athletes are prepared, and afterwards in case of injury.” Athletes tend to be experienced in dealing with pain, and often have high pain thresholds that lead them to ignore injuries that might become seriously aggravated if they continue to play.
“Recently we examined a member of our basketball team,” said Dr. Jerome Renoux, Chief Radiologist for the French Olympic Committee. “She had an MRI that revealed a knee injury. We had to tell her she could no longer play. It was sad, but it was the right decision for her health. If she had carried on playing the consequences could have been far worse.”
When an athlete goes in for an MRI, they are most likely getting their knees checked. The knee is a complex joint, surrounded by criss-crossing tendons and ligaments to keep the leg moving the way it should and protecting it from the massive forces placed on them from all directions when playing sports.
The jewel in the Rio medical team’s crown is the Olympic Games Polyclinic a shining example of the best sports medicine has to offer. The polyclinic is a 3,500 square meter facility that will have dental, ophthalmology, pharmacy, clinical therapy facilities and a radiology department.
The Polyclinic is where the state-of-the-art MRI scanners are be located, along with digital x-ray systems and the latest ultrasound scanners to provide high quality images that will help medical staff diagnose even minor injuries as early as possible. Besides these, a GE Electronic Medical Record (EMR) system is up and running to guarantee that doctors from all teams can track thousands of data points on each of their athletes, analyse that data in near-real-time and coordinate care with providers from around the world.
“It’s difficult to predict injuries, so a lot of our resources go to prevention,” added Dr. Renoux. “But if injuries do happen, as in the case of gymnast Samir Ait Said last Saturday, we need to have a quick and effective response in place. Thankfully we did, and he now on the road to recovery. But the outcome could have been different were it not for our well-equipped team on site.”