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John Drummond, a COSAM alumnus and physician, reflects on the 1996 Olympics working with the Infection Control Committee

Published: 08/17/2016

Dr. John Drummond, a COSAM alumnus, has been an infectious diseases physician in Atlanta for nearly 40 years. He was on the front lines when the AIDS virus was first encountered and below he reflects on the differences and similarities with AIDS and Zika, and his work with the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

Shortly after being awarded the prize of hosting the Olympic Games in 1996, the city of Atlanta began the complex job of preparing for them.  One of the myriad of issues to be addressed was Infection Control – most importantly, the very worrisome concern with the problem of HIV/AIDS. With nearly 10,500 sexually active young adults were coming to town and living in close quarters, the potential for casual romantic interludes was high.  There was also a great possibility of contact and exchange of blood by competitors in the boxing ring or wrestling mat, or even a basketball court.

An Infection Control Committee for the Games was formed in 1994, consisting of the State Epidemiologist for Georgia, CDC doctors in the HIV/AIDS Section, and several staffers from ACOG (Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games). The group included three Infectious Disease Specialists, one a full-time professor on the faculty of Emory University School of Medicine, myself and another doctor who were in private practice in Atlanta.  In 1994, two years before the Games were to open, we began meeting every few months to discuss the issues.

Today we know much more about how the virus is transmitted than we did 22 years ago.  In 1991, Magic Johnson announced he had ‘attained the HIV virus’ via heterosexual intercourse and immediately retired from the NBA.  Although he returned to help the USA ‘Dream Team’ win Gold at the Barcelona, Spain Games in 1992 and later returned briefly to the Lakers, but then he quickly retired again.  This was due to the fear expressed from NBA players about the potential risk of playing against an HIV-positive opponent.  Now, 25 years after becoming HIV-positive, Magic stands tall as a robust, healthy and very successful businessman.  Importantly, his wife Cookie and their children remain HIV-negative.

Consequently, in 1994 our committee was faced with a wide range of options on how to handle the possible risk of HIV exposure during the Games.  One radical suggestion early on was to test every athlete for HIV as they entered the United States or Atlanta.  The Georgia Legislature had passed a law on July 1, 1988 making it an illegal to draw an HIV blood test on a person without that person's prior written consent.  To do so would be to commit battery.  Of the 10,500 young adults from all over the world, we expected a few would test positive for HIV.  What would happen then?  Would the athlete be banned from competition and sent home in shame and revulsion?  Doing so might ruin the athletes’ lives and humiliate their country.   There was also the problem of who would pay for those thousands of blood tests.  Could we be certain there was no cheating with test results, similar to that of athletes/teams taking PEDs, as in the current Russian track and field team banned from Rio?  We finally agreed that, to quote a line from one of the Jurassic Park films, this was ‘a really bad idea.’ 

One committee member offered a tongue-in-cheek suggestion of a far more simple solution, to just ‘put a ban on having sex’ during the Games.  After we stopped laughing and faced the reality of raging hormones in the bedrooms of The Olympic Village, the committee decided that the most practical solution was to make condoms readily available to all athletes. Glass bowls full of condoms were placed throughout the living and dining quarters allowing a person to grab a handful of condoms as easily as picking up a bottle of water.

A nosebleed or minor cut acquired during competition was a possibility on a basketball court, in the pool playing water polo, or in combative sports such as boxing or wrestling. Our solution was to do mandatory HIV blood testing of the bleeder immediately after the event. If the HIV test result was negative, then there was no problem.  If it HIV-positive, then one of the three of us Infectious Disease Specialists would quietly and confidentially evaluate the athlete on a case-by-case basis.

I personally attended the boxing venue, thinking that would be the most likely place that blood would be shed.  I was both happy, but also a bit disappointed; our meticulous and carefully laid-out plans were never needed there.  In professional boxing 16-ounce gloves are used, with no protective headgear, and the goal is to win by knocking out or out-hitting the opponent over 15 three-minute rounds.  In Olympic boxing, the gloves are lighter weight, protective headgear is worn, and matches are only three rounds.  The glove tips are white to make scoring of contacts by the referee easier.  Points are scored by making contact with the opponent and blocking contact from him.  So no blood was shed at the boxing venue.  To my knowledge the only HIV test performed at the 1996 Games was on a housekeeper/janitor who was injured while lifting a trash bag from one of the training rooms.  Someone had merely tossed a syringe and needle into a wastebasket instead of placing it into a special sharp objects container.  The janitor suffered what is called “a blind needle-stick" on the hand.

To highlight our concern, in February 1996, a professional boxer named Tommy Morrison was scheduled to fight in Las Vegas.  He had won the WBO world heavyweight championship in 1993 by defeating George Foreman.  By Nevada law, every professional boxer was required to undergo an HIV blood test before a fight.  He tested HIV-positive, and was immediately banned from boxing for life.  Tommy Morrison was in total denial, famously claiming "I would rather trust a lawyer than a doctor" and continued to deny he was HIV-positive until his death at age 44 on September 1, 2013. 

Because of the notoriety associated with HIV and boxing during February 1996, just five months before the Atlanta Summer Games, reporters asked ACOG officials if by any chance the issues regarding HIV had been addressed among other details of planning.  Their simple answer:  ‘We got it covered.’

Current knowledge of HIV/AIDS is light-years ahead of what we knew, or thought we knew, 20 years ago.  During the 1980s and 1990s it was a very scary time for not only gay people and IV drug abusers, hemophiliacs and surgical patients who required blood transfusions.  It was also a great concern for doctors, dentists, nurses (essentially all healthcare workers), and law enforcement personnel.

During competition in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, there are new worries about the Zika virus and environmental exposure to malicious bacteria and viruses at some of the venues.  Hopefully by the 2020 Summer Games, our knowledge of Zika will have greatly expanded, perhaps even to the point of having a vaccine available.  Between Dr. Anthony Fauci and his colleagues at the NIH, and the CDC here in Atlanta, I am optimistic that Zika may well be under control by then, if not totally eradicated similar to smallpox, which was eliminated from the face of the Earth in 1977.

- John Drummond, pre-med ’69

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