Cindy Chang at work in the Sports Medicine Specialty Clinic at the Tang Center, UC Berkeley. Photo: University Health Services

Later today, Dr. Cindy Chang will set off for London. But she bears a bigger responsibility than most people flying across the Atlantic: when Chang arrives, as chief medical officer for Team USA she’ll be responsible for the clinical supervision of a medical staff of 80 responding to the needs and the inevitable emergencies for the 525 athletes at the London Olympic Games.

“It’s a huge honor. It’s really exciting,” said Chang, who was the chief team physician for Cal Athletics from 1995-2008 and is now a family medicine and sports medicine specialist at University Health Services. “There are a lot of things I didn’t expect to be doing 20 years ago. My goal was to be a well-trained family physician with a strong training in sports medicine as well.”  

London won’t be Chang’s first Olympic experience. She served as chief medical officer for the Paralympic Games in Beijing in 2008. But Chang’s appointment as the US team’s CMO for the Olympic Games marks a number of firsts: first woman CMO and first Chinese-American CMO for an able bodied Olympics.

Despite the honor, Chang checked first with her husband and two children before taking on the responsibility. She stepped down from her post as Cal’s chief team physician four years ago so she could spend more team with her family. Her children — a daughter and a son, both at Berkeley High — apparently okayed the assignment. The kids and Chang’s husband will also be traveling to the Olympics, but Chang reckons she’ll be lucky if she gets away for one meal with them during their time at the Games.

Chang recognizes she may have very few opportunities to get out of the Olympic Village, where she’ll be putting together Team USA’s sports medicine clinic almost from the moment she arrives tomorrow.

“We have to unpack all the pallets that have been shipped from Colorado Springs to the Olympic Village,” she explains. The pallets have the medical team’s formulary of medications, and medical supplies and equipment. The 80 medical staff under Chang’s guidance includes other physicians, chiropractors, athletic trainers, physical therapists and massage therapists.

Chang visited London in February to meet the London Organizing Committee, tour hospitals and other medical facilities, and review the numerous Olympic venues. Chang will work from the main US clinic in the Olympic Village, but she’ll have team staff working remotely with some of the teams. Women’s soccer, for example, will play its preliminary round games in Glasgow and Manchester.

Chang says the challenge of dealing with so many different sports in the Olympics doesn’t necessarily pose particular difficulties for the medical staff.

“There are some of us that have more experience working with one sport more than any other, but all of us are trained to work with athletes,” she says. “The mechanism of injury may be different, but the injury itself is typically the same. We’re often in the position of saying, ‘Tell me again what is the move you did that caused you to be injured?’ You can’t pretend you know; you can’t fool the athletes.”

Chang says she’s looking forward to seeing many of the 30 athletes from Cal competing in the Summer Games, some for Team USA, some for other nations. She hopes, however, that she sees them casually in the Olympic Village or at a competition venue, and not because of illness or injury.

Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...