Olympic Sacrifice: The medical team behind the athletes
Russell Gunner, C.A.T. (C)

CBC News
With the Beijing Olympics around the corner, Canadian athletes are getting ready to chase their dreams. Just making the team may be the realization of a dream for many, while others will be disappointed if they don't go home with a medal.

Whatever the goal, an athlete's dream can come crashing back to earth in a split second when injury occurs. In a most recent example, Canadian hurdler Perdita Felicien was forced to withdraw from these Olympics due to a nagging foot injury.

But every athlete will tell you that injuries are often a part of training and almost impossible to avoid. That's where the medical team comes into play. While they may not be a group of superheroes, they may help an athlete continue to compete and go on to win Canada a medal.

When you're watching the opening ceremonies in the Olympic stadium known as the Bird's Nest in Beijing, you might not realize that almost half of the Canadians you see in those bright track suits are actually support personal. They're the coaches, nutritionists, doctors, massage therapists, physiotherapists and psychologists who help keep the team in top shape.

This year, Dr. Robert McCormack of New Westminster, B.C., is the chief medical officer while Stephen King of Lennoxville, Que. is the chief therapist.

Dr. McCormack — director of the Simon Fraser Orthopaedic Research Office — has a long history with high-level sporting competition. He has served as a physician with several Canadian Olympic teams as well as teams that competed at the Commonwealth Games and World Student University Games.

King has also been in this position before. He is an athletic therapist and osteopath in Sherbrooke, Que., where he is also the director of sports medicine at Bishop's University. He served as the athletic therapist for the Canadian Olympic teams in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 1984, Albertville, France, in 1992, Nagano, Japan, in 1998 and Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2002. He was also Canada's chief therapist at the 1991 World University Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan.

All of these experts are going to have their hands full, says a therapist who has been through the experience.

Remo Bucci, a massage therapist who works at my clinic in Mississauga, Ont., helped out with the Canadian team at the Torino Olympics in Italy in 2006, as well as the Paralympic Games in Athens in 2004 and the World University Games in South Korea in 2003. He says while it's an incredible honour, it was one of the most gruelling things he's ever done.

"I was the only certified sport massage therapist on an experienced and well-organized Canadian team of medical doctors, athletic therapists and physiotherapists," he said. "Needless to say I was very popular, some days too popular - amongst over 150 Canadian athletes. Each team member oversaw a particular Canadian team (i.e. women's volleyball and men's basketball). The athletic therapists and physiotherapists would screen athletes and the ones who were injured would be referred to me."

Bucci said he put in extremely long hours at the World University Games. He was required to work from 8:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. with few breaks for 12 days. He says he was warned about the gruelling schedule by other sport massage therapists before the Games, so he trained for two months prior to leaving, just as the athletes did.

So, as glorious as it sounds to represent your country, there is a big financial commitment that each member of the medical team must undertake. Canada does not pay the members of the medical team. Most of them are used to working at sports medicine clinics where they are paid based upon how many patients they see in a day.

It's a problem when you have family commitments and you're asked to serve the Olympic team by going four-to-six weeks without pay. This has been up for debate for years with the Canadian government, and they still haven't budged on their budget. It is quite common for therapists to organize fundraisers to subsidize their trips before they go to the Games.

And it's especially tough on Canadian team members when they know that other countries, such as the United States and Australia, pay the members of their team for working at the Olympics.

Now don't get me wrong — most therapists would love to represent their country at an event such as the Olympics.

Athletes will work and sacrifice for years to try to make their dreams come true and if they do win a medal, it can help further their careers after athletics.

As part of the medical team, you will also go through years of sacrifice, but they will often go unnoticed, except from that one athlete who says, "Thanks, I couldn't have done this without you." Sometimes, that makes it all worth it.