Massage & the Olympics

A Champion Achievement

By Eugene (Geno) Ortiz

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, June/July 2002.

Author’s Note: This article is dedicated to, and in memory of, Gail Weldon who passed away in 1991. Gail, a pioneer in the advancement of women in the field of athletic training, was the organizer of the first-ever, modern Olympic massage team at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games. I believe she, along with her assistant, Joan Parks (both certified athletic trainers) brought massage out of the dark ages that year and into the forefront of acceptance in America. Unfortunately, over the years I have heard others claim credit for this milestone in massage history, and it saddens me to see and hear these non-truths in our beautiful field of massage. I was there, I was a therapist with that first Olympic massage team, and Gail and Joan were the leaders, directors and organizers of that fantastic crew. Ed Ryan, ATC U.S. Olympic Committee Sports Medicine Division, proves me right when he said, “Working with Tony Daly M.D. (the medical director), Gail was responsible for initiating and coordinating massage therapy services for all athletes at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games.” Gail believed in massage and through her efforts, touch therapy ended up in three 1984 Summer Olympic Village Venues serving all countries, all sports, both men and women.

The Olympics is much more than just a sporting event. Just witness the emotion of sportsmanship, comradery and competition evident in the eyes and character of so many of the athletes at this year’s Games, and the Games’ “greater purpose” becomes apparent.

The spirit of the Olympic Games was born centuries ago. Records show that the ancient first games were held in Greece as early as 776 B.C. From those first years, the basis of the Olympic movement began to evolve into a philosophy of life: exalting and combining the qualities of body, will and mind into a balanced whole. Out of this philosophy the Olympic ideals were born, placing noble competition, sport, peace, culture and education at the very core of civilization.

By 393 A.D., the year the Olympics was abolished by Emperor Theodosius, more than 290 Olympic Games had been held. Despite this dark period in the Games’ past, the Olympic ideals survived the centuries and were eventually revived by the French Baron, Pierre de Coubertin. In 1896, the first modern Olympic games were held in Athens and since that time, they have been on a journey around the world.

The Olympic Games are truly a unification of the world in all aspects, not just sports. If you are in an Olympic city during the Games, you will see for yourself. In the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, a sociological phenomenon took place.The crime rate dropped so low that officials were baffled as to the reason this turnaround took place. It was the opinion of many that the Olympic spirit “zapped” people before they knew what hit them. The spirit of the Games affected the entire area. People united with each other, while gang warfare took a break.

It’s that spirit that continues to follow the games through the centuries.The 2004 Athens Olympic Committee has labeled the Olympics as “the greatest celebration of humanity.” Having had the honor of being on staff for two Olympics, I believe the games create the greatest magical gathering on the planet.

Olympic Massage

As each Olympic committee brings their own understanding of bodywork, or lack of it, to the event, massage therapists have struggled with being able to tell and show a consistent message to the Olympic community. In 1984, massage was very much a part of the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. In fact, we were a part of the Olympic medical staff, complete with uniforms, shoes, hats and jackets. In 2002, massage was lucky to meander its way through various levels of politics and actually be a part of the games.

Then and Now

In 1984, a tremendous fantasy came true for me. I was honored to receive a congratulatory telephone call from Gail Weldon, announcing to me that, after a long process, I was selected to the first ever Modern Olympic Massage Team in Los Angeles, Calif. Eighteen years later, in November 2001, this fantasy experience repeated itself. After the last, intense phase of the FBI background check was complete, I was officially part of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic massage staff.

Massage in the Olympics made a tremendous impact in 1984. But in 2002, massage was a hot potato that was nearly left out of the games. After much dispute and controversy, Roger Orbott, with the assistance of Jennifer Pruetz and Ron Findlay, stepped forward with unabashed enthusiasm and announced he would spearhead the mission to get massage to the games. Orbott’s involvement as an Olympic volunteer started in 1999 when he first put his name on a list to help. Even though massage was not scheduled to be a part of the Olympics, Orbott was determined to find a way to make it a part of the games. He volunteered with the drug testing team to see how the system worked from the inside as a means to get massage in the door.

After a horrendous roller coaster ride with the Salt Lake Olympic organizers and the International Olympic Committee, massage was finally allowed to be part of the 2002 Winter Olympic event. The final contract – a contractor’s agreement versus an Olympic staff contract – was signed Dec. 27, 2002. Our projected cost for providing massage was approximately $500,000, which meant the massage team would not meet the minimum dollar requirement to be considered a sponsor or supplier. Taking that into consideration, we had only one choice – to be a “contractor.” It was obvious the budget would not allow a fair payday for the massage team, so we settled, for logistics sake, on the $3 fee afforded the entire team.

Massage Team

The 2002 Olympic Massage Team consisted of 260 therapists (154 females and 106 males) selected from a worldwide draw of applicants. There were 12 countries and 39 U.S. states represented. Those selected were true believers and promoters of the good word of massage. Proof is in the payback. What, you might ask, did we get in return for our Olympic efforts? Of course, the most outstanding return was the honor of representing the massage world, our families, our community, our state, and our country. In return, we financed our travel, lodging, meals, uniforms, etc., and of course, we lost out on wages while we were away from our homes and professions.

Olympic Massage Services

Massage was available in three different locations for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics – Olympic Village, Little America Hotel and the Media Center.

The Olympic Village seemed to be the primary location for massage. This sanctuary was a magical, sacred and protected space. The location, set up on the campus of the University of Utah, housed 4,000 staffers and more than 3,500 athletes and officials from all over the world. They ate, slept and socialized here. Walking through the village was always a spine-tingling adventure. To be given access to this special area was a fantasy come true.

The Village was a self-contained community filled with services, including a coffee house, game center, medical station, bank, calling center, cyber café, dry cleaner, post office, gift shop, gymnasium, and, of course, massage and other amenities. The massage team members had access to the Olympic Village only during their regularly scheduled shifts.

Our massage area was inside a small trailer, but what magic came from within. This trailer had a tight, maximum- massage-table capacity of eight. We worked in two shifts starting at 9 a.m. and finishing at 9 p.m. Our massage center was open not only to athletes, but to staffers, coaches and anyone associated with an Olympic team. Our treatment objective was strictly “maintenance.” A form had to be signed by an athlete’s team doctor in order to receive massage. Any injured athlete was directed to physical therapy. Our treatment sessions were limited to 15 minutes and most were done with the client fully clothed.

Per shift, we usually had 15-18 therapists working and we averaged about 130 treatments per day. Under no circumstances were we allowed to accept money from any clients. Photographs in the treatment room were not allowed during sessions; outside the treatment room, photos with athletes were allowed with permission from the athlete. The total tally of massages given during those 15 days in the Olympic Village was 1,977.

All those working within the Village were shuttled into the area. Three security checkpoints had to be passed before setting foot in the Village.

Little America Hotel was nicknamed the “Olympic Family Hotel.” This is where diplomats, International Olympic Committee members and their families stayed. Like the Village, security was in place before anyone could enter the hotel perimeter. Each section/floor of the hotel had additional security checkpoints.

The massage team was assigned a hotel room as our massage headquarters with three massage tables and one massage chair. The daily staff consisted of three therapists and one team leader; here, treatments were limited to 30 minutes.

We had one daily shift which ran from 12:45 p.m. to 7 p.m. The clientele ranged from elite medical personnel to other Olympic staffers to teenage children of diplomats. As far as treatment objectives, we had more leeway than when working at the Olympic Village. We could design our massage to meet the person’s needs and the situation, just like any massage in our private practice. Our total tally of massages here was a little more than 400 in 15 days and averaged about 30 per day. We were allowed to accept tips at this venue, but they were infrequent. Offering massage at this location allowed the ultimate exposure of massage to the organizers of the Olympic games and will hopefully realize its impact with future games. The press also had exposure to massage at the Main Media Center. Here, massage was served up to 9,000 members of the press and their support staff. We had nine massage chairs, but no massage tables. The chair massage was conducted in the open hallways, allowing for spaciousness and more exposure to foot traffic. By nature, massage made its way into the press coverage via this venue. The Media Center, by far, did the highest volume of massages – 7,357 chair massages in 15 days.

Acknowledgement must also be extended to the massage therapists who stayed in Utah to provide massage at the Paralympic Games. After all was said and done, the efforts of those involved once again proved massage is a valuable part of the Olympic spirit. Through enthusiastic efforts, massage has been exposed to the world as a valuable and necessary part of the Olympic Games.

Almost 10,000 massage treatments were given at all three venues. The Paralympic Games added about 2,500 massages. It cost all of us a lot of money to participate in this Olympic massage effort. All in all, it was worth it. The thrill of my selection and participation is still sinking into my soul and spirit. The enthusiasm of my practice and my teaching the next generation of therapists has reached heights way beyond my wildest dreams. For me, this is the ultimate of all massage experiences.

To be selected as a “world massage therapist” is unparalleled with any other accomplishment I have achieved, besides fatherhood.