Meet the athletes

Where do sick Olympians go? Your burning questions answered

Feb. 19, 2014 at 6:01 PM ET

Even though Olympic athletes in Sochi demonstrate super-human skill, they surely get sick, right? So what happens when they fall ill? We've got the answer to that — and what you might be wondering about all the slalom events (giant? Super-G? What?) — coming right up. For more burning questions and answers from Sochi, check out the whole collection here.

Q. What happens when an Olympic athlete gets sick?

A. Usually, there is a doctor for each nation’s sport team, if not at least one general physician for every country represented at the Olympic Games. However, athletes from nations that can’t afford a physician can go to a centralized clinic in the Olympic Village, said former Olympic swimmer Bryan Kim, now an assistant oncology professor at Georgetown University.

US-3 two-woman bobsleigh brakewoman Lolo Jones waves at the end of Women's Bobsleigh Heat 3 at the Sliding Center Sanki during the Sochi Winter Olympi...
JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP - Getty Images
Two-woman bobsleigh brakewoman Lolo Jones gives a wave on Wednesday. Though she recovered in time to compete, she kicked off her time in Sochi in quarantine.

Kim said doctors were very careful about what they prescribed athletes for even minor illnesses like colds, which were treated with scarcely more than multivitamins. Doctors must be super careful to avoid anything that might get an athlete banned from competition because of doping rules. Even common over-the-counter-products can sometimes have forbidden substances in them, he said.

“Many of those things might have stimulants that might be banned by the IOC so you have to be very careful about that,” said Kim, a swimmer who competed for South Korea.

For more serious conditions, particularly anything contagious, some nations may consider isolating the Olympian from other athletes.

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Last week, American bobsledder Lolo Jones tweeted that she had just been released from a “quarantine room” in the Olympic village. 

Getting sick is no small fear for Olympic athletes, as figure skater Alex Shibutani jokingly pointed out, at the expense of Jones:

A U.S. bobsled spokeswoman later confirmed that Jones had been isolated as a precautionary move after showing cold and flu symptoms.

But the International Olympic Committee said in an email to TODAY.com that "as far as we know, there is no quarantine imposed on athletes by the Games organizers." It referred specific questions about Jones' case the medical treatment of American athletes to the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Calls and email to the USOC were not returned.

epa04088161 Himanshu Thakur of India competes in the Men's Giant Slalom Run 1 of the Alpine Skiing event in Rosa Khutor Alpine Center at the Sochi 201...
Michael Kappeler / EPA
Himanshu Thakur of India competes in the nen's giant slalom on Wednesday.

Q: What’s the difference between the slalom, the giant slalom and the super giant slalom (aka super-G)? 

A: They’re all part of four disciplines of Alpine skiing, along with the downhill. While slalom requires mastering turns, the downhill is made for speed demons. A fifth discipline — the super combined — puts the downhill and slalom together. All Alpine events are timed events, recorded down to one hundredth of a second. Here’s a look at each:

The downhill has the longest course and generates the fastest speeds among skiers. Each person makes a single run and whoever makes it down quickest wins. The course is marked by poles, or “gates,” as well as plastic nets along the side to catch anyone who rolls astray following a a crash.

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The slalom traditionally is the shortest of the skiing events. The races require both speed and nimbleness. Each skier must navigate a course of sharp turns marked by closely set gates. Missing any one of the gates results in disqualification. Each competitor gets two runs down the coarse, and the fastest combined time wins.

Austria's Matthias Mayer speeds down the course during the second run of the men's alpine skiing giant slalom event at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics ...
LEONHARD FOEGER / Reuters
Austria's Matthias Mayer speeds down the course during the second run of the men's alpine skiing giant slalom.

Giant slalom races are similar to slalom, but with less turns and wider corners because there are fewer gates, spaced at greater distances to each other. Like the regular slalom, skiers make two runs down the course and are disqualified for missing a gate. Winners are determined by the fastest total time.

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Like the downhill race, the super-G is a one-shot deal: The fastest skier wins. The race course is shorter than the downhill, but longer than the giant slalom. It’s also easier for a super-G skiers to disqualify for missing a gate because they run up to their turns at faster speeds than other slalom races.

The super-combined race puts the best of both worlds together: A downhill run with a slalom course.

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