When American athletes gather in Tokyo for a Summer Olympics like none before, they'll be joined by seven physicians, among them, a specialist in internal and sports medicine from Great Neck.
Dr. Ariel Nassim, 35, previously treated athletes in 2017 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and in 2019, at the Pan American Games in Peru.
His trip to Tokyo will offer new challenges.
Nassim, who is also the team internist for Queens College and the head team physician at York College, will arrive in Tokyo to find Olympic athletes preparing for the 32nd summer games amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and sports venues devoid of fans because of fears of infections.
All the safety measures will mean a different Olympics, Nassim said, and considering the risk of athletes and others on the team getting infected, different is not a bad thing.
"I think there is a sense of caution but it's also nice to see how much the International Olympic Committee has put into place to really make sure they're protecting not only the Japanese community, but all the athletes that are coming in," said Nassim, who has offices in Great Neck and Flushing and also works as a consultant for the U.S. Open and the Brooklyn Nets.
"It’s a tremendous burden they've taken on to make sure everyone is safe," he said, "but it's what's necessary to make sure these people who have trained their whole lives to get this opportunity are not going to have some unfortunate episode of turning up positive and not being able to participate. It's going to be a different games for sure … but I think we all understand that it's for the greater good."
Before the pandemic forced postponement of the 2020 games, Nassim had planned to take his wife. Because of ongoing pandemic restrictions in 2021, she will stay home with their three young children.
Dr. David Weinstein, head of the U.S. medical team for the Tokyo games, invited Nassim to join the group. The U.S. medical contingent for the Olympics, which begin Friday, includes COVID-19 liaison officers who will specialize in managing related protocols. In addition to the more than 600 American athletes, the medical team will also take care of support staff.
"Most of the time we're dealing with really healthy 25-year-old athletes, but there's a lot of the supporting staff that might be in their 60s. In the past games we've had someone with a stroke and an appendectomy," Weinstein said. "Having somebody with Dr. Nassim’s skills is really helpful for us. Specifically, because he’s internal medicine trained as well as primary care sports medicine trained, he's bringing a great skill set that's going to benefit all our athletes and help them perform better, and he's been good at that for us in the past. In Peru he was integral when we had a breakout of influenza and gastrointestinal illness. He’s just a natural to invite to Tokyo."
Nassim said he’ll be stationed in the Olympic Village with 80% of the U.S. athletes. His typical day will start at about 8 a.m. with a medical team meeting to discuss health issues, such as upper respiratory tract infections, and whether any doctors need to attend that day's matches.
"They invited me to the Pan Am Games, so I guess they appreciated the work I did," said Nassim, a member of the Medical Society of the State of New York. "I think my internal medicine background really came in handy for them as they often don't have internists on staff."
The days may not end until 10 p.m.
"We have a mission to allow the athletes to be at their best and perform at their top level," Weinstein said.
Nassim, who is vaccinated and has been treating patients in his practice throughout the pandemic, said he’s not apprehensive about COVID-19. He will be tested twice before arriving at Newark Liberty International Airport on Wednesday, again when he lands in Japan, and then nearly daily until the Olympics end. He will fly back on Aug. 8.
Being part of the medical team is an honor and besides, he said, "I have a better chance of being on our team as a medical doctor than as one of the athletes."