Treating the World’s Top Athletes

The Olympic Games bring together thousands of volunteer healthcare professionals

With the 2016 Summer Olympic Games about to kick off, the international sporting event is becoming more and more central in daily conversation. While competition is obvious among both athletes and spectators, the Games are ultimately about unity. Every two years (alternating between summer and winter), numerous countries — an impressive 204 in the 2012 Summer Olympics — put aside their political differences for 16 days to focus on their love of sports. The Games bring together athletes, national leaders, sports fans — and even healthcare professionals.

From August 5-21, an estimated 70,000 volunteers will gather in Rio de Janeiro, and approximately 5,000 of them will be healthcare professionals. These volunteers will be drawn from a wide range of fields, including nursing, first-aid, physiotherapy, massage therapy, pharmacy, dentistry, radiology, orthopedics, optometry and more.1

Crucial for Success

Although 5,000 healthcare volunteers may seem like a lot, they’re crucial for the success of the Olympics: Of the 11,000 athletes who will compete in Rio, an estimated 10% will suffer an injury, and 7% will contract an illness.1-2 Indeed, with a large number of people comes a great variety of diseases. As Robert McCormack, medical director for the Canadian Olympic Committee at the 2012 Games in London, told the Canadian Medical Association, “The Olympics is where the viruses of the world come to meet.”

However, the roles of volunteers from the healthcare industry will vary greatly. At the last Summer Olympics, many volunteers were placed in a polyclinic in the Olympic Village that offered primary care, sports medicine, physiotherapy, optometry, ophthalmology, dental care, medical imaging, podiatry and more.2 Others offered on-site support to specific teams’ own medical support teams, or provided first aid to athletes.3-4

Although many of these volunteers will treat injuries, the bulk of the work performed by medical professionals at the Olympics is basic, primary care. Many athletes who don’t have time for regular dentist visits due to their training schedule are able to briefly visit with a dentist in the Olympic Village. Further, athletes from countries with limited access to quality healthcare are able to meet with trained healthcare professionals who can offer them anything from physical therapy to contact lenses.2

Opportunity for Experience

While volunteer positions at Rio required applicants to have graduated or passed their professional qualifications by January 2016, according to the official website for the 2016 Summer Olympics, a great deal of professional experience isn’t required. Rather, the Olympic Committee says, “This is a unique opportunity to enrich your CV, meet people from different cultural backgrounds and make new friends.”5

Although professional experience was technically not mandatory, it may have been difficult to be accepted into the program without an impressive work history: Approximately 270,000 people applied to volunteer at the Olympics, and less than one-fifth were accepted.6

Even if someone is among the lucky number to be accepted, the journey to Rio still isn’t simple. As Teresa Roe, RN, a soon-to-be volunteer at the 2016 Summer Olympics, told The Columbus Dispatch, the International Olympic Committee doesn’t pay for volunteers’ travel or accommodations. According to Roe, volunteers only receive a meal each day and a uniform — but the volunteers feel that the experience makes it all worthwhile.6

“It combines my passion for sports medicine, which is what I love to do every day, and a passion for traveling and experiencing new lands and cultures,” Brian Krabak, MD, MBA, FACSM, told CNN.7

Different Paths

Not all healthcare volunteers come to the Olympics the same way. Jeff Goudreau, MD, FACP, started working with the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) 16 years ago, including roles at the Olympic Training Centers in San Diego and Colorado Springs. In Rio, he will serve as a physician for the men’s and women’s swimming and water polo events, overseeing all teams. Although he has worked with the committee for quite some time, he told ADVANCE that it wasn’t a small feat to be offered his new supervisory position.

“I think I was accepted because of my 16-year experience with the USOC and my language skills,” Goudreau said. During the application process, he was required to take language skills tests in Spanish, Italian, and Brazilian Portuguese — and passed with flying colors. In Rio, he anticipates that he will staff a clinic and take care of minor injuries but, as with most volunteers going to the Olympics, can’t be entirely certain about what his days will entail until he arrives.

Passion for the Unknown

Healthcare workers at the Olympics will care for not only athletes, but also volunteers, members of the media, coaches, dignitaries, support staff and spectators.2 While most volunteers don’t know the specifics of their roles prior to arriving at the Games, they aren’t daunted by the unknown. Many see volunteering at the Olympics as a once-in-a-lifetime, “bucket list” opportunity — and, given the small percentage of applicants who are accepted, perhaps they should.

Do you think that volunteering as a healthcare professional at the Olympics could be a fit for you? While it might be too late to go to Rio, applications are open for the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Why not see where the Olympics could take you?


  1. Rio 2016. Olympic Athletes.
  2. Collier, R. Providing medical services at Olympics a huge task. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association Journal. 2012;184(13): E703–E704. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.109-4268.
  3. Hughes, C. 2012 Olympics — the author’s experience. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine Blog. 2012.
  4. Heald, C. London Olympics: how volunteers made the games. BBC. 2012.
  5. Rio 2016. Calling all doctors! Rio 2016 looking for 5,000 volunteer healthcare professionals. 2014.
  6. Kurtzman, L. Nurse jumps into unknown to volunteer for 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. The Columbus Dispatch. 2016.
  7. Pawlowski, A. Super volunteers globetrot for Olympics. CNN. 2010.

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