The Medical Team: Another Winner in the Olympics

The Medical Team: Another Winner in the Olympics

The medical team is a key element within an Olympic delegation. Early stories of the Modern Olympic Games prove this.

No Olympic delegation is complete without a medical team. Doctors, physical therapists and psychologists teamed with the coaches to keep athletes in their best shape or to help them in the face of any accident or injury.

But medical teams did not appear right from the onset of the Modern Olympic Games. In the first games, held in Athens in 1896, the importance of the medical team was not completely grasped.

It has been reported that during those first games, a group of doctors were riding ambulances along the runners in the marathon to help them in case they needed assistance, which they gave to many of them.

In the Olympic Games of Paris 1900, it was reported the first serious injury sustained by an athlete: US Arthur Duffey presented a muscle injury while running the 100 meters.

Little by little the importance of a medical team in the delegations to the Olympic Games won ground. It was finally understood that they were needed in these major events because athletes become vulnerable: hungry for a win they often push themselves beyond their limits.

In the third Olympic Games in St. Louis 1904, the absence of a medical team impeded that the only Cuban athlete taking part in the games could win a gold medal and become Cuba’s first Olympic champion. His name was FélixThe Andarín Carvajal, rightly called the champion of the poor, made ​​almost a feat to participate in the Olympic Games in St. Louis. de la Caridad Carvajal Soto, also known as Andarín Carvajal. He was a poor mailman from Havana, short of stature and skinny as a bag of bones for not eating properly. All these elements and the lack of a doctor by his side turned sour his winning aspirations.

On August 30, 1904 the marathon run started around midday. The weather conditions were harsh: temperatures were 32ºC (over 90ºF) in the shadows and relative humidity was high, which made 14 of the 27 runners leave the race early.

Carvajal, a former messenger for the Independence Army, was the favorite; he managed to quickly take great advantage over his contenders and lead the race.

But then, when he was running the 29th kilometer, Carvajal saw an apple tree and having not eaten for more than 40 hours, he decided to take some and eat them.

The apple feast quickly took its toll: Carvajal had a strong stomachache that forced him to make several “technical stops.” So, while he had to hide in the nearby bushes to solve his problem, he saw some of his contenders pass him by. He eventually returned to the race, ending fourth.

The winner of the marathon, Thomas Hicks from the United States, had the assistance of several doctors. They would inject strychnine sulphate, a substance now banned for sportspeople, every time he was about to faint. They also provided him eggs and some glasses of brandy. This was the only way the athlete could reach the finish line, where he arrived in a state of physical exhaustion.

More than a century has gone by and sports medicine has made significant advances. In the eve of the recently concluded Olympic Games London 2012 the head of the medical team of the Cuban delegation, Pavel Pino M.D., gave an interview in which he spoke about the excellent physical and mental state of the Cuban athletes.

As I read the interview, I was thinking on Andarín Carvajal and all the setbacks he faced because there was no doctor to assist him. Now the Cuban teams to the Olympic Games count with a dedicated group of specialist in Sports Medicine who are there to give them assistance and to celebrate every victory.

On Andarín Carvajal

Andarín Carvajal (1875-1949) was an amateur runner and the first Cuban athlete to represent Cuba in a modern Olympic Games.  He raised money to buy the ticket to go to the United States. On August, 1905 Cuban magazine El Figaro published some of the prizes this outstanding runner won in the United States:

•Prize in the Exhibition in Saint Louis. Gold medal.

•Saint Louis Race. Award: a silver and gold cup.

•Race of the Missouri Athletic Club. Gold medal.

•Chicago. Gold Medal

•Washington. Gold Medal.

El Figaro magazine also reports that Andarín Carvajal won all these prizes competing against the best runners of the world in races of 25 to 40 miles.