Niall Elliott, chief medical officer for Team GB at Tokyo 2020 and head of sports medicine at the sportscotland Institute of Sport, spoke to Pippa Field of the Daily Telegraph about supporting the wider community during the coronavirus pandemic as well as the country’s elite athletes.
My work is normally split between the sports systems. I'm Team GB's chief medical officer for Tokyo which will personally be my eighth major Games across winter and summer Olympic Games and Commonwealth Games. Then I’m also head of sports medicine at the sportscotland Institute of Sport and the bulk of my work is looking after about 750 athletes in the Scottish system. On top of that I do work in the NHS, a musculoskeletal clinic and I also work in general practice helping out in what we call the out of hours service.
At the moment, because of the coronavirus outbreak, I’m doing extra shifts in the Tayside out of hours system where I live in Dundee.
The thing to remember is that patients still have normal, routine medical matters, from cancer concerns to normal chest infections to tummy upsets. We still continue to deliver that care and that’s where my job is, in the community side of things.
But everyone is just contributing to it, there’s people coming out of retirement, or delaying their retirement. Lovely is the wrong word, but it’s been one of those chances in your career where you suddenly realise that people genuinely are going to put in the hours, there are colleagues who are working extraordinarily long hours in hospitals and they need that extra support in the community setting.
A good proportion of athletes I’ve worked with over the years have a healthcare background or maybe work in social care and they are all chipping in and doing their bit too. I think everyone has a sense of duty in contributing in their own way. And that’s the power of it. These are athletes who are ultimately driven in terms of their sporting careers but equally they’ve got so much they can give back in the community.
Once everything has been lifted, it will be a good morale booster to get sports all lined up and working again. But that’s not just yet.
We’re very conscious of mental health challenges that will come, both within sport and the NHS. That’s almost the next bit we need to be aware of - how do we support people longer term?
Athlete health is a very interesting topic and it’s something we’ve worked on over the years before this pandemic. The particular challenge we have at the moment with athletes is we’re giving advice in terms of maintaining their fitness, but not to a point where they are challenging their immune systems and potentially putting themselves at risk.
We don’t know exactly how this virus is affecting immunity, especially in the athletic population. Key messages that have come out at governmental level is making sure everyone does some exercise each day. That is good, that will help your immune system and support it but conversely over-doing it can be a bit of a challenge. These are the discussions we’re having with our coaching colleagues, with sports governing bodies.
The athletes are chomping at the bit, they're desperately keen as originally this summer was their Olympic Games moment. They've got over a year to go now. It’s really trying to manage that and help them through these next couple of months.
The clever athlete is one who can adapt and do something different. Instead of being able to do their routine, they might be able to suddenly focus on one particular part of their training programme. In layman’s terms, being able to focus a little bit more on core stability or exercises or flexibility. They may never have another opportunity to do 6-8 weeks of that particular type of exercise.
The physiologists, the exercise scientists and the physiotherapists are working hard in terms of trying to devise home-based programmes that maintains fitness but also allows them to work on certain areas that they can get stronger from.
It’s about seizing this an opportunity. The clock has been reset. Let’s see what opportunity this offers to actually deliver an even better medical team going into the Games. But equally that’s the mentality for the athletes, let’s see some of the positives from this situation.