How Beijing Is Handling Sports Injuries at the Games

BEIJING — The American doctor hardly waited once she arrived next to Brianna Decker, the women’s hockey player whose screams of distress filled a Beijing arena on Thursday night: the doctor looked past a penalty box and raised her hands to summon help.

A squad of six attendants — gowned and masked, their faces covered further by shields — hurried onto the ice and gingerly glided toward the Americans. Two maneuvered a stretcher. And, soon, Decker was off the ice, and out of the Games altogether.

The quick medical response underlined the way China is trying to make sure that the Olympics will be safe not only in terms of the coronavirus, but also in terms of the crashes and collisions that have long been a danger in many winter sports. China is trying to prevent virus infections with a so-called bubble that has walled off Games participants from Chinese society. But sports medicine is a challenge of paramount importance to the athletes and their teams.

The immediate removal of Decker from the ice came after a slow response to a luge athlete’s crash during training in early November, an incident that raised questions about China’s ability to provide world-class, specialized medical services for the Games. China has less experience with winter sports and their associated injuries than almost any previous host of the Winter Olympics.

China had hoped to host a variety of World Cup events last winter as a top-level preparation for hosting the Olympics. But those events ended up being canceled because of the pandemic.

So Beijing and the adjacent city of Zhangjiakou are now hosting the Winter Olympics with many venues that are completely new, and with little experience in managing mishaps.

Worries about sports medicine at the Games came into sharp focus in early November. That was when a Polish luge athlete, Mateusz Sochowicz, came hurtling down a newly built course on a training run only to discover that a metal gate on the track had been mistakenly left closed by the track’s staff.

The impact fractured Sochowicz’s left kneecap and cut his right leg open to the bone. Local emergency medical technicians were slow to arrive and slow to figure out what to do.

Although Sochowicz later spoke highly of the hospital care that he eventually received, he accused the venue team last year of “great incompetence.” In one instance, he said then, a member of the Chinese venue staff sought to touch an exposed bone with a glove.

“They didn’t know what to do at all,” Sochowicz told the Polish website Onet last year, adding: “Dante-esque scenes were happening there.”

The Beijing Olympic organizing committee made a statement through the state-run Xinhua news agency that did not address the quality of medical care that Sochowicz received, but said “the International Luge Federation and the venue team quickly conducted a comprehensive inspection of the track and optimized the training organization process.”

Asked about the incident during a news conference on Saturday morning, Xu Hejian, a Beijing municipal spokesman, responded that Sochowicz was healthy enough that he had returned to Beijing to compete in the Olympics.

Justin Downes, a winter sports consultant who has a contract from China to bring in foreign doctors and snow rescue specialists for many of the Olympic skiing events but not for sliding events like the luge, said that the local emergency medical technicians had not expected to face such a serious injury during training.

“They weren’t in the right place and they weren’t prepared emotionally or physically to do their job,” he said in an interview last month.

The incident brought top-level attention to athlete safety and sports medicine, and the Olympic venues are now far more ready to handle any injuries that might occur, Downes said, adding, “Everybody got an immediate dressing down, that safety is absolutely paramount.”

Several Western governments complained to Chinese officials about the incident and were promised that medical care during the Olympics would be much more prompt, said three people familiar with the discussions who insisted on anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.

On Thursday evening, the venue’s medical team swiftly took Decker, a star of an American women’s squad hoping to repeat as the Olympic champion, off the ice. A more intensive response began soon afterward, out of public view. An American official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a health matter, said Decker had quickly undergone a CT scan at the arena, allowing doctors to detect her injury with little delay.

But the site lacked an X-ray machine, the official said, so Decker had to wait until Friday morning to undergo one to clarify her injury. That delay notwithstanding, the American team felt that the Chinese strategy had been considered and well-executed, and the official said the United States had no misgivings about the care Decker had received.

Wang Jianhui, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Health Commission, said at the news conference on Saturday morning that the city had mustered 1,300 medical professionals from 17 hospitals to provide care during the Olympics, and had set up specialized centers for orthopedic care.

He noted that the hockey venue was equipped with a CT scanner and dental facilities, but did not mention X-ray equipment. Some, but not all, hockey arenas in the United States have on-site X-ray machines.

The Beijing Olympic organizing committee’s press office said in an email reply to questions late Saturday afternoon that it wished Decker a quick recovery. “We got the information that she received prompt medical attention after her injury and that our well-prepared medical coverage was timely and effective,” the reply added.

Decker said over the weekend that she would remain with the team during its stay in China.

As for Sochowicz, there was something of a happy ending for him. His legs healed, he made incident-free training runs last week. Then, on Saturday, he competed in the Games.

“I feel like I already won with the demons of the past,” he said.

Liu Yi contributed research.

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