Golden Touch

Massage Therapists Score Big at the Sydney Summer Olympics

By Chaz Hudd

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, December/January 2001.

The Olympic Games are a massive undertaking. Consider some numbers from the recently completed Summer Games in Sydney, Australia. Over the course of 16 days, more than 10,000 athletes representing 198 countries participated in 28 different sports. Crowds of more than 110,000 took in some of the events live, while an estimated 4 billion viewers worldwide watched on television. In addition, approximately 6 million tickets were sold to the events which featured the best athletes on the planet.

Within the scope of these figures, it would be easy to overlook one smaller number — 210. That’s the number of volunteer massage therapists on-hand throughout the games. While the total may seem to pale in comparison with some of the other statistics, the contributions made by these selfless workers cannot be overstated.

“The therapists were assigned to every Olympic venue,” said Tammy Alumbaugh, a therapist from Springfield, Mo., who worked the Games. “I was assigned to the beach volleyball site for half my time and to the main clinic in the Village the rest of the time. Almost every athlete competing got worked on either by a volunteer or by their team therapist. The clinic was open every day from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., and was constantly busy. All slots were filled for 30-minute sessions.”

Alumbaugh has operated a small massage practice in Springfield for three years. Always into athletics herself, Alumbaugh competed in volleyball, basketball, track and softball while growing up, and was a high jumper at Southwest Missouri State. Alumbaugh learned of the Olympic volunteer opportunity over the Internet in the winter of ’98, and received a formal application in December that year after sending in a letter of interest.

“I received a letter in March of this year saying they wanted me. I was getting married in May, so it was a bit complicated, but I decided to do it. I committed my services for a month, and got a discounted airfare through Kiwanis Airlines. The expenses were all out-of-pocket, so this was a serious commitment.”

Most of Alumbaugh’s clients were happy for her, though a bit disappointed she would be unavailable for 5 1/2 weeks. Some made contributions, as the therapist ran various fundraisers to help with the expenses. Several corporate sponsors also helped ease the financial burden a bit. Alumbaugh took a 10-day personal vacation before the Games were to begin, leaving for Australia Aug. 23.

“Many of the athletes arrived in the Village about two weeks before the Games began on Sept. 15. Leading up to the start, the beach was not too busy because the weather wasn’t too nice. It was extremely busy at the Village. The volunteers worked eight-hour shifts, with one-hour dinner breaks. Officials could use the facilities early in the day, but it was strictly athletes after noon.”

With athletes from nearly 200 countries on-hand, speaking dozens of languages, communication was a big challenge for all the therapists.

“I seemed to have a gift for attracting people who spoke no English at all,” Alumbaugh said. “I often had to go by non-verbal grimaces or body reactions. A lot of the teams stuck together, so if one member did know any English, he would speak for the rest of the team. Sometimes communication seemed impossible, but we always seemed to find a way to work through it.”

An important bridge in overcoming the language barrier was a consent form each athlete was required to fill out before being treated. In addition to their name, nationality and accreditation number, the athletes were asked several questions. These included preference of a male or female therapist, any injuries they might have, and whether they had ever had massage work done previously. On the back were pictures of the human body from four different angles: the front, back and from both sides.

“The cards with the diagram of the body were incredibly helpful. Each athlete would mark off the parts of the body he or she wanted worked on. They made communication problems manageable. Things wouldn’t have worked without the consent forms.”

Massage was a key for athletes in their training to qualify for the Games. The majority of Australian Olympians spent a great deal of time at the Australian Institute of Sports (AIS) in Canberra. There, 25 massage therapists worked directly with the athletes before and during the Games.

“The buildup toward the Olympics was overwhelming,” said Brad Hiskins, who has worked in the AIS Physiotherapy/Massage Department since 1994. “It was everywhere in the media. Working at the AIS only escalated this.The pressures the athletes felt were ever-present. Even before the Games began, there were highs and lows, great success stories and devastating near-misses.”

Therapists at the Institute studied every sport, and traveled with many of the teams. They wrote recovery programs and worked with the sports medicine team to provide the best possible service.

“When the athletes and therapists arrived in the Olympic Village two weeks before the Games began, it signified the culmination of years of blood, sweat and tears for all of us,” Hiskins explained. “The massage therapists within the Australian contingent were a great bunch of people, the type necessary to get through an Olympics campaign. We worked closely with the physiotherapists and sports physicians on the team. This was a vital aspect to the team approach in order to ensure the best possible quality of care.”

Their tireless work obviously yielded positive results for the Australian team. The Sydney crowd thrilled to gold medal-winning performances by such hometown heroes as swimmers Ian Thorpe, Grant Hackett and Susie O’Neill. The women’s field hockey team captured gold, as did Lauren Burns in the first Olympic taekwondo competition. Aborigine Kathy Freeman captivated the entire country when she grabbed the gold in the 400-meter run. In all, the Aussies captured 58 medals, of which 16 were gold.

“No one athlete was treated any better or worse than the next,” said Hiskins. “Patrick Rafter, Kathy Freeman, Ian Thorpe and so on were treated just like the rest. They were all the best at what they do within our nation, and it was amazing to see how the athletes understood and appreciated that fact. As our Prime Minister said, Kathy Freeman’s gold medal was no more deserved than Lauren Burns’ in taekwondo. That’s the way it should be.”

The beach volleyball venue was the place to be during the Olympics. Each day of the competition, Bondi Beach was packed with rowdy spectators looking to have a good time. A disc jockey pumped out music between points, led the crowd in various versions of “The Wave,” and gave out prizes.

“Working at the beach was a blast,” Alumbaugh cheerfully recalled. “There were 10,000 people there to have fun and support their countries in competition. They had a monster sound system always blowing out good music. The beach volleyball players are tremendous athletes. The court is the same size as indoors. Two people cover what six normally do, and they do it in sand. I worked on Eric Fonoimoana and Dane Blanton, the American pair that took the gold. They weren’t even considered contenders coming into the competition. I also worked on the Aussie women who won gold, Kerri Pottharst and Natalie Cook.”

Perhaps the therapy performed by Alumbaugh provided a little magic on the sand. Fonoimoana and Blanton were seeded ninth, and had never defeated the heavily favored Brazilian team before the finals. Cook and Pottharst were also underdogs in their gold medal matchup with Brazil’s Shelda Bede and Adriana Behar. Like the American men, the Australian women pulled off stunning comebacks to capture the gold.

“I definitely found myself pulling a little harder for the athletes that I had worked on,” Alumbaugh confessed. “Dealing with them was great, especially for the two weeks before the Games began. They were more relaxed and accessible. I know I helped the athletes with my work, but some of them impacted me more than I did them.”

One of Alumbaugh’s main goals in volunteering was to learn techniques she could use in her practice in Missouri. Unfortunately, due to the therapist’s hectic schedules, there really wasn’t much sharing of ideas. Alumbaugh received just one 30-minute massage during her time in Australia. At the beach, where she was assigned half the time, Alumbaugh was the only therapist on duty. Other factors more than made up for this drawback, however.

“I learned so much in Australia, and had so many great experiences,” Alumbaugh said. “A Saudi Arabian kid who barely spoke any English at all got up after his massage and said, ‘That was beautiful massage.’ That really made me feel good. All the Australian people were incredibly helpful and friendly. They’d see my volunteer pass and ask me questions and offer any kind of assistance they could provide. I learned to communicate with people when it seemed impossible.

“After my time in Australia, I’m totally addicted to the Olympics. My friends tease me that I barely noticed the ’96 Games in Atlanta, but flew 7,000 miles to lose a month’s salary in Sydney. I loved the energy and the people with that fun Aussie accent. I learned new things about my industry, got the opportunity to work with elite athletes, and got a sense that I was really helping them perform at their maximum potential. I grew personally and professionally as a result of this adventure ‘Down Under.’ My only regret was that my husband wasn’t able to travel with me.”

Hiskins also received tremendous gratification from his work, despite putting in 12- and 16-hour days in the polyclinic, the center for athletes with injury-related problems. The therapists kept statistics on all who received treatment, and noted that the sports with the least funding seemed to utilize the services most.

“Some days were enormous,” Hiskins said. “We’d work from 5:30 in the morning until midnight or beyond, but with the energy spilling in from each athlete who walked in, it was easy to keep going. Members from the more obscure sports really seemed to use the clinic quite a bit.

“Overall it was a very fulfilling experience. I have new memories that will last a lifetime, and friends I hope will also last as long. It’s back to the grind though. Athens (site of the 2004 Summer Games) is just four years away. There are new stars to groom. The Institute has more athletes and I still have only two hands. Thank God there are a few of us to deal with them.”

The beauty of massage is that both therapist and client derive many benefits from the process. This certainly seems to have been the case with the athletes and hundreds of practitioners, volunteer or otherwise, who lent their talents to the Sydney Olympic Games. Those who gave their gift of touch, were, in turn, touched more deeply by their experiences. The Games were surely a golden event for all.