Meet Canada's Chief Medical Officer for the Olympics
Dr. Julia Alleyne is an associate professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine who has served on the Canadian medical team for four different Olympic Games.
This year, she has been appointed chief medical officer for the 2012 Canadian Olympic team.
Before Alleyne set off for London, writer Gavin Au-Yeung asked the renowned sports physician to share some of her experiences and insight with us:
The upcoming London Games will be the fifth time you’ve worked with Olympic athletes. How did you first become involved with the Games?
Working with athletes was something I grew into. Thanks to my background in physiotherapy it was natural for me to gravitate into sports medicine. I saw there was a need for athletes to have good health care because they travel a lot and often don’t have time for clinical appointments.
As a sport medicine physician I have worked with many levels of athletes – including our own varsity teams and national and Olympic level athletes. And it is through understanding athlete needs that I began volunteering at sporting events and championships. Later, I began applying to Olympic level teams. You need a certain amount of experience and credentials before you can apply to be on an Olympic team.
The opportunities presented themselves and I was fortunate enough to be able to take part in them. I worked hard and was given more opportunities.
How will your role as chief medical officer make these Games different than your prior visits?
I’ve played a different role in every Olympics. They include assistant chief medical officer, staff physician, physician to figure skating and wellness coordinator.
The chief medical officer is a position only given once, as you generally don’t repeat any further Games under the title. This year, as the chief medical officer, I will be involved with the overall strategy planning and administration of health services for athletes. I will also be involved with setting policy and procedures for the Canadian medical clinic in the Olympic Village.
As chief medical officer, you were tasked with selecting the rest of the medical team. How did you select the members?
We have approximately 65 health professionals on the Olympic team in which I helped select.
Anyone applying for the medical team has to meet qualifications of their national organizations – whether that be sports physiotherapy, sport chiropractor, sport medicine, etc. I look at those who have relevant game experience, complementary skills and are strong team players that can help and adapt in any situation.
In addition, there are sports federations that may bring their own physicians and they become integrated into the team.
Your work as the chief medical officer for the Games is crucial, but in some ways invisible to the public as we focus on the athletes.
We work in the background. Our task is to keep athletes healthy and at peak performance. We provide everything from wellness services to treatment for injury and illness. Sometimes we help athletes resolve issues quickly so they can continue to compete, other times we help athletes with serious injuries where we need to provide them with Canadian standard level of care no matter where they are in the world.
Hopefully you wouldn’t see the medical group on television. After all, the athletes are the important part of the Games.
You work with recreational athletes and Olympians – how do they differ?
Olympic athletes tend to have very focused training; and they will temporarily put other activities aside. This may include school, work, where they live, family, etc. The process may take months or maybe even years. Their training is very specific to a goal – whether that is Olympic competition or certain attainment of a skill.
Secondly, they have a very high level of body awareness compared to recreational athletes. Because Olympians may train between 25-30 hours a week they can easily notice early symptoms of injuries. In addition, recreational athletes may not think about speaking to a doctor regarding low level discomfort.
A third difference is the focus on quick recovery. Because of upcoming competition, physicians need to understand the athlete’s goals and intervene early.
What’s it like to be in the Olympic Village?
The Olympic Village has a community atmosphere. Although the athletes are competing against each other, the Village is like “safe grounds” where athletes share dining hall area, recreation space and walking paths. It carries a very supportive community feel.
The Village has quiet spaces with greenery, parks and trees. These are excellent spaces that are ideal for relaxing, meeting other people or even taking a nice walk.
Furthermore, there are many musical performances, international zones and shops where athletes can mingle. As far as foods and smells, the dining hall is amazing – it includes different foods from all over the world. And the athletes need their nutrition.
The Village is a privilege to be in.
What do you think will be some of the highlights for the upcoming Games?
The track venue will be a real highlight – we’ve got some returning athletes both Canadian and international who were medallists in previous games and World championships.
There is a fantastic swimming facility in London, and on top of that there will be some really amazing international athletes competing – I think the swimming events will definitely break some records.
Also, soccer is always a highlight in the summer Olympics – it’s a very long process in terms of rounds and eliminations which creates excitement for the final games.
What events are you covering during the Games?
I will be covering the gymnastic events – including both artistic and rhythmic gymnastics. I am certainly looking forward to seeing our Canadian athletes compete, and I will be covering those events in case of injury or needs the athletes have.
I’ve worked with trampolines since 2003, so I always take pride in watching the performances of our Canadian athletes – including two U of T student-athletes currently training in Toronto.
How has your time and experience at U of T helped prepare you for London?
U of T has helped me develop a greater awareness and sensitivity towards the needs of athletes. My focus becomes directed towards the athlete’s needs and not on some of the distractions present at the Olympics.
At the U of T sports medicine clinic (the David McIntosh Clinic) we treat every one of our athletes with the same care and philosophy as our Olympians. We respect the fact they are focused on their sport. Their tournaments and deadlines are important, and so we need to treat them quickly. Dealing with coaches and athletes in the varsity competitive environment is also great preparation as it helps me understand the athletes.