HSS Surgeons at the Athens Olympics

An interview with Dr. Jo Hannafin and Dr. Scott Rodeo


Only a handful of doctors can hold the title of United States Olympic Team Physician, and Hospital for Special Surgery has two orthopedic surgeons who achieved the honor this year. 

This exceptional opportunity to work with the American athletes in Athens was earned by Dr. Jo Hannafin and Dr. Scott Rodeo, associate attendings in the Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service at HSS, who have dedicated much of their time to caring for professional and amateur athletes.  Both have settled back into New York, but say their lives - both professionally and personally - are forever changed.

"It was a great opportunity, a lot of fun, and a great experience from a sports medicine standpoint," said Dr. Rodeo, "we took care of a lot of different injuries, experienced by a wide variety of athletes-from the 80 pound gymnast to the 250 pound wrestler."

Dr. Rodeo's Olympic experience started with the Opening Ceremonies.  For 3 hours he assembled with athletes from all over the world, and then paraded into the stadium with the Americans.  He spoke of conversations he had with celebrity athletes, and walked just steps ahead of the men's basketball "Dream Team."

Not all of the athletes participate in the Opening Ceremonies.  In fact Dr. Hannafin watched television coverage of the ceremonies with the U.S. rowers in their compound, about an hour away from the Olympic Stadium. 

"We had our own version of the Opening Ceremonies," said Dr. Hannafin.  "The rowers got all dressed up in their marching gear and really made the best of it."

The rowing events, which were scheduled to start the next morning, were Dr. Hannafin's primary sport to cover during the games.  Miles away, Dr. Rodeo was with the swimmers who were also starting competition.  His days began at 7:00am in the U.S. medical clinic located in the Olympic Village.  At about 8:00am he headed over to the swimming venue for the qualifying rounds.  At about noon, it was back to the Olympic Village for a few more hours in the clinic or some free time, but by 4:00pm he returned to the pool for the evening meets which started at 7:00pm.  Competition usually finished around 10:00pm, but then Dr. Rodeo would oversee the Doping Control process until after midnight.

In order to participate in the Games, countries had to sign the World Anti-Doping Agency agreement, essentially stating that the country's national governing body would abide by the rules of WADA.  In addition to random drug testing, the top 4 finishers in each event were required to undergo a drug test after their competition.  One of the responsibilities of the team physicians was to accompany the athletes to Doping Control.  In drug testing the athletes were asked to report all medications, vitamins, and supplements that were consumed in the last 72 hours.  The physicians were responsible for keeping a record of any substances given to the athletes during the Games.

"You're responsible as a physician for not giving the athletes anything they shouldn't have," said Dr. Hannafin. 

The list of banned substances is wide-ranging-covering everything from steroid-filled eardrops to asthma inhalers, and it is updated regularly.  The drug testing procedures are very precise and closely monitored.  Dr. Rodeo indicated there were 26 or 27 positive drug tests in Athens, resulting in 7 revoked medals, 3 of them gold.  No U.S. medals were lost.

Drs. Hannafin and Rodeo were chosen because of their expertise in orthopedic surgery, but as Olympic Team Physicians they were called upon to treat a wide variety of conditions, from soar throats and ear infections to stress fractures and strained muscles.

"There, you're kind of everything-to the athletes you're just Doc," said Dr. Rodeo.

There were 7 other U.S. team physicians-a mix of orthopedic surgeons and general practitioners-plus dozens of athletic trainers, each specializing in a different sport.  Becoming an Olympic doctor requires no less than 5 years of dedication and volunteerism to a sport.  Both Dr. Hannafin and Dr. Rodeo were competitive athletes before going into medicine, and they described this opportunity as a way to give back to their favorite events.

Dr. Hannafin was a member of the silver medalist lightweight double at the 1984 World Rowing Championships, and she was a three-time gold medalist at the U.S. National Rowing Championships.  Dr. Rodeo was also a top-level athlete, competing on the swimming team at Stanford University for two years, where he qualified for the NCAA National Championships.  He said he got involved with the USA Swimming program to contribute to the sport and give back to the people who helped inspire his career.

Before an orthopedic surgeon or primary care sports medicine doctor can be considered for the title of United States Olympic Committee (USOC) physician, they must have five years experience providing medical care for an athletic team at the high school, collegiate, or professional level.  Dr Rodeo is chairman of the USA Swimming Sports Committee, Associate Team Physician for the New York Giants, and Medical Director for Asphalt Green-a local swimming club in New York City.  Dr. Hannafin has been team physician for the U.S. Rowing team since 1994, an event physician at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, an Assistant Team Physician for the NY Mets and the team physician for the WUSA New York Power.

As part of the qualifying process, both physicians were invited for a two-week internship at one of three U.S. Olympic Training Centers.  Dr. Hannafin and Dr. Rodeo went to Colorado Springs at different points in the year to staff a 24-hour medical clinic and to care for injured athletes.  The internships serve as an opportunity for the USOC to evaluate the doctors and assess their interaction and care of the athletes.

The committee then selects a handful of physicians to provide medical services at international sporting events like the World University Games or the Pan-American Games.  Dr. Hannafin was selected as a team physician for the Pan-American Games and Dr. Rodeo worked an international event last year, and were notified by the Olympic committee in early April that they were chosen to attend the games in Athens.

Their preparation for the Games involved establishing contacts and access to medical facilities in Athens, reviewing all the athletes' medical records and preparing for any emerging health concerns, and making sure the athletes had all their vaccinations.  In Athens, Dr. Rodeo and Dr. Hannafin treated a variety of common conditions, such as upper-respiratory illnesses, stomach upset, and ear infections.  The most common musculoskeletal injuries were the result of chronic overuse and over training, and most were pretty germane to the sport.  Dr. Rodeo treated some divers and gymnasts with back injuries and stress fractures, and shoulder pain was common in swimmers and athletes in the weight-throwing events.

Dr. Rodeo pointed out that caring for athletes in a variety of sports in this intense competition was a valuable experience and an opportunity to learn from the vast knowledge of the other physicians and trainers, as well as from the high performance athletes themselves. 

"You do learn all sorts of little tricks by seeing how other people do different things," said Dr. Rodeo, "like how to make a wrestler's lacerations stop bleeding quickly.

After the swimming and rowing events were finished, Dr. Hannafin and Dr. Rodeo covered boxing, the marathons, Greco-Roman and free style wrestling, Tae Kwon Do, modern pentathlon and some track and field.  And while both said it was thrilling to be on the sidelines of these competitions, some of their best memories are of the day-to-day activities in the Olympic Village.

"When I moved down to the Olympic Village, I suddenly had a sense of the whole breadth of it-there literally were 10,000 athletes from around the world," said Dr. Hannafin.  "And when you walked into the dining hall, it was packed with people of every size, every shape, every color, every country-speaking all these different languages, and I think that's when it really hit home to me," she said.

Overall, the American Olympic athletes were healthy, said both doctors, and their team of physicians was well-prepared.  Security at the Games was praised by many, and Dr. Hannafin said you would have never guessed the Greeks were pressed for time to complete the venues.  Both doctors said Athens was a wonderful host.

Dr. Hannafin and Dr. Rodeo each have their own memories that defined the Olympic experience for them.   Traveling with the world's best athletes, witnessing the camaraderie of the games-sitting in the stands next to Americans who had already finished competing and who were now cheering on other American athletes in pursuit of their own medals and dreams.  These are the stories that define the Olympic spirit.
Those moments made it almost possible to forget for a while the ugly politics between nations that persisted outside the walls of the Olympic Village.  But Dr. Hannafin was quickly reminded of the harsh reality while covering the bronze medal Greco-Roman wrestling match.  The defending gold medal champion was American, Rulon Gardner, who Dr. Hannafin described as a "teddy bear of a man who kindly took the time to explain the rules of the sport to her."  Gardner's name was called and he was introduced to a pro-Iranian crowd who booed and jeered him.

"It brought tears to my eyes because it was such an awful thing," said Hannafin.  "Here's this guy, going out in the Olympic medal match, and they're booing him because he comes from a country where people don't agree with the politics," she said.

Gardner ultimately beat his Iranian opponent.  Afterwards, he wrapped his shoulders in the American flag, removed his shoes, and placed them in the center of the wrestling ring-the international sign of an athlete retiring from his sport.  Dr. Hannafin said that at that moment the crowd's attitude changed, and Rulon Gardner exited the arena to a standing ovation by fans paying tribute to Rulon the athlete, who just happened to be an American.

As the Games came to a close, Dr. Hannafin and Dr. Rodeo took some time to really absorb the experience, watch some competitions, and tour the city of Athens.  Dr. Hannafin participated in Closing Ceremonies where she said it was impossible to tell by the end of the night which athletes were from which countries.  During the parade into the stadium athletes were swapping bits and pieces of their decorated uniforms-mementos of international friendships that were made during their stay in Athens. 

Usually, this would be the end of the Olympic experience for a team physician.  But the USOC announced to the doctors that they have changed the rules and that any of the 9 doctors would be eligible for another run in 4 years if a sport requested them back.

Both say they will make that decision if the opportunity presents itself.  But for now, it's back to the lives they had put on hold and back to work at the hospital where they will certainly have some stories to share.

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