UBC Fields a Team of Olympic Sports Doctors

UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 3 | Mar. 6, 2008

By Basil Waugh

It is every Olympic athlete’s nightmare. After years of training and sacrifice, an injury or failed blood test suddenly disqualifies you from competition.

It is something Dr. Bob McCormack, Canada’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for the 2008 Olympic Summer Games in Beijing, knows a little about. Set to represent Canada at the 1980 games in Moscow, the former track star’s Olympic dreams were dashed when the Western world boycotted the games due to Cold War tensions.

“It was pretty unlucky,” says McCormack, a UBC orthopedic surgeon who watched the boycotted games on TV while holding two national middle distance track records at the time. “But it is huge honour to now be able to help others to try to achieve their own dreams. I live a little vicariously through them, I guess.”

In Beijing, McCormack will lead a small army of sports physicians, physiotherapists and nutritionists, overseeing everything from medical care to banned-substance testing, to ensure Canada’s athletes are in peak condition.

McCormack’s team will also be involved in two research projects: One will investigate how the Beijing’s notoriously bad air quality will impact athletes; the other is a national study on the athletic benefits of food supplements.

McCormack will not be the only UBC sports physician helping athletes to achieve the Olympic motto of “faster, higher, stronger” this summer. Each of the 29 sports has a sport federation (NSF) physician responsible for assisting with medical care and doping controls for international athletes during competition. Two will be from UBC: Dr. Don McKenzie (canoeing) and Dr. Babak Shadgan (wrestling).

“UBC is really well represented in Beijing,” says McCormack. “UBC has been a hub for cutting edge research in sports medicine for some time. There are excellent people here, many who are working with national and professional teams.”

As CMOs and NSF doctors work under the leadership of a head physician appointed by the host country, UBC will play an even more prominent role in 2010: the Vancouver Olympic Committee (VANOC) has named UBC sports doctor Dr. Jack Taunton to the Vancouver Winter Games’ top medical position.

As a NSF doctor for a combat sport, Shadgan will be a busy man in Beijing. When wresters suffer sprains, dislocations or cuts, the PhD student will be responsible for overseeing medical care. If an athlete is too wounded to safely continue, Shadgan — who researches muscle injuries at UBC’s new Muscle Biophysics Laboratory — has the difficult task of disqualifying the athlete from the match.

In the early 1990s, Shadgan became Iran’s first accredited sports physician; he has since devoted his career to injury prevention. For the past four years has been tracking and analyzing wrestling injuries in international competitions, including the Athens Olympics. After collecting more data in Beijing, he will present to the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles a series of suggested rule and technique changes to reduce the rate and severity of injuries.

With three medals in 2004, flatwater canoeing is one of Canada’s most successful Olympic events. McKenzie, Director of Sports Medicine at UBC, attributes some of this success to pioneering research at UBC that used science to improve athletic training.

“Back in the 1980s, we started measuring performance and using science to determine how to improve performance,” said McKenzie, who fits athletes with heart monitors Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to monitor their training. “Combining science and training was something UBC was instrumental in and still is.”

McKenzie, for whom Beijing will be his seventh Olympics, says the thought of helping athletes defy the limits of physical performance keeps him coming back to international event. “It is pretty exciting to watch evolution happen right before your eyes.”

McKenzie is known internationally as founder of the Abreast in a Boat non-profit organization that promotes dragon boating to raise awareness about breast cancer and to encourage those living with breast cancer to live full and active lives.