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gold medal Inside the Olympic Medical Tent


A physician's job at the world's biggest sporting event goes beyond the television image of treating acutely injured elite athletes. In reality, the medical mission is to cover a patient population of 1.5 million visitors, which includes not only athletes, but also spectators, media, staff, volunteers, and officials.

To John D. Cantwell, MD, Chief Medical Officer for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, the medical task is, "the equivalent of eight Super Bowls a day for 17 days." He says it will take 460 physicians and about 4,100 medical volunteers to cover the Olympics.

Medical planning for the 1996 games began in 1991 when the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) appointed Cantwell Chief. Since then, Cantwell, director of preventive medicine and cardiac rehabilitation at Georgia Baptist Medical Center and clinical professor of medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, has observed medical systems at the last three Olympic Games.

As the days draw closer to the opening ceremonies, the percentage of Cantwell's day spent on Olympics business rises. On July 1 he will be 100% immersed in his Olympic duties when he moves into the ACOG Medical Command Center at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis for the duration of the Games.

ACOG says its charge is to provide the attendees with the best available medical services at training sites, competition venues, and spectator venues. ACOG's medical team also implements International Olympic Committee (IOC) doping screening and facilitates biomechanics and physiology research projects. For a detailed description of the Olympic medical plan, see ACOG's "Olympic Games Medical Services" page on their World Wide Web site (https://www.atlanta.

Cantwell says operations commence at the Medical Command Center on July 6 once the athletes begin arriving at the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology, the site of the Olympic Village.

The central site for athlete care is the Polyclinic in the Olympic Village. Come July, Georgia Tech's Student Health Center will become the Polyclinic, designed to provide medical care for the 15,000 competitors expected at the Games, according to information released by ACOG. The clinic will house the medical records of all participants and provide 24-hour multispecialty medical service. It will take a medical staff of 400 to operate the Polyclinic.

During competition, athletes will receive medical care at sports medicine stations located on the fields of play. ACOG medical teams will be present at each station to assist the delegation's or athlete's medical provider. ACOG venue physicians also provide care to participants who don't have a designated medical provider. Also located at each venue are doping control stations. ACOG medical staff will collect 2,000 samples as directed by the International Olympic Commission Medical Commission.

Spectator care will be available at about 121 first-aid stations and from mobile medical teams. Each station will be equipped by one of 14 Atlanta hospitals, and each station will be able to treat at least two critically ill patients at a time. Mobile teams will provide immediate care to spectators who can't reach a first aid station.

Because of Atlanta's summer heat and humidity, organizers have made prevention a vital part of their planning (see "Heat Stress in Atlanta: Preparing for the Olympic Worst"). Literature on heat and sun safety tips is being mailed with tickets, and sponsors, public health agencies, and the news media are helping ACOG spread the message about spectator safety. The Salvation Army will station several "water buffaloes" (mobile drinking water tanks) on the Olympic grounds, and corporate sponsors are providing spectators with breaks from the heat with tents and other "cool zone" accommodations. Olympic organizers measure coolness by the pound: They estimate that it will take 21 million pounds of ice to keep athletes, spectators, and horses cool during the games.

Lisa Schnirring