Today, most of the attention at the Olympics is aimed at doping, so it’s very easy to overlook all other medical interventions that happen during the most important sporting event in the world. However, doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, diet experts and all other medical staff play a huge role in keeping athletes healthy, safe and happy. So, as thanks to all the work they do, here’s a brief history of medicine at the Olympics.
In Athens in 1896, most medical works were aimed at water sports and marathons, since they were thought to be the most dangerous. During that time, doctors would travel in carts behind the runners and wait on them in sheds during swimming competitions. Four years later in Paris, athletes got to enjoy a better treatment with ambulances laid along the way. Since the July weather was very hot, the organization provided athletes with tents to provide shelter against the sun and summer downpours.
St Louis marathon controversy
In 1904 in St Louis, the marathon winner crossed the finish line looking greatly distressed, with ashy face, dull eyes and barely able to lift his legs. On his way to the finish line, he was assisted by hot water baths, brandy, egg white and sulfate of strychnine (extremely toxic). Other runners also struggled, mainly because there was only one water supply place, a well at the 12-mile mark! At that time, not many competitors had medical teams to provide food, water and drugs, so many of them found it hard to stay hydrated and nourished. Cuban marathoner even had to steal peaches from the nearby orchard!
After the debacle in St Louis, London organization managed to fix some of the problems and improve the conditions for athletes. For the first time in history, all first-time runners of the marathon race had to bring a doctor’s certificate that will state whether they are fit to run. Thanks to these humble beginning, today all athletes are obliged to provide doctor’s notes and extensive test results which can greatly prevent sudden death cases. These tests don’t only help the organization, but also ensure athletes are safe. Even something as small as a complete eye test can ensure people can go into their competition feeling healthy. Eye tests can also ensure better performance and greater sporting satisfaction so it’s a win-win situation.
First doping bans
“Dope of all kinds” was also forbidden at London 1908 games. However, since doctors didn’t have any doping tests and no clear definitions of what counted as doping, they had to use their own judgment. But, this small step ensured we have strict anti-doping laws and fair competitions.
1936 games in Berlin employed a new rule to fight infections. They created disinfecting pools for the athletes, as well as footbaths against athlete’s foot. Also, kitchens had to be inspected every day to prevent stomach viruses. Berlin also went all-in with their hospital: they built a two-story building with 27 rooms that housed a medical team of over 170 doctors and 200 auxiliary staff. Ironically, while most injuries were minor, Romanian boxer caught blood poisoning due to infected boils and died. Another pretty ironic detail from those games is that Chancellor Adolf Hitler created a huge committee to deal with international cooperation. He ordered the organizers to build a very extensive telephone network for medical crisis and medical translation services in order to provide the best aid for foreign competitors.
Mental health care
The somewhat somber and frugal games of 1948 in London still managed to surprise with their great healthcare services. Even though London was still on the ration book, for the first time in history, two beds were dedicated to psychiatric cases. However, in case of more serious mental issues, patients couldn’t be accommodated at the hospital.
Starts of modern Olympic medicine
Helsinki games of 1952 started a pattern that greatly resembles today’s Olympic medicine. Olympic village had mini-hospitals and polyclinics and there was a huge network of emergency services all around the village. Local healthcare institutions and specialists provided professional care, while volunteers provided first aid care. Additionally, private companies also offered donations of meds and med supplies as well as provided monetary help.
Today, Olympic medicine is a well-greased wheel that functions perfectly to the smallest details. It’s hard to imagine how far we’ve come since our humble beginnings of doctors on carts and in tiny medical sheds!
Diana Smith is a full time mom of two beautiful girls interested in topics related to home improvement, DIY and interior design. In her free time she enjoys reading and preparing healthy meals for her family.