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July 20, 2021
America Dissected
Pandemic Olympics with Peter Vanderkaay

In This Episode

Abdul breaks down the risks–and rewards–inherent in holding an international athletic competition in the middle of a pandemic. He speaks with four-time US Olympic swimmer and gold medalist Peter Vanderkaay about the Olympic experience and how this summer’s Olympics might be different.





Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: COVID-19 cases are rising in all 50 states as the Delta variant drives infection among the unvaccinated. New data reveals that overdose deaths rose by 30% in 2020, as the pandemic destroyed lives and livelihoods. Senate Democrats are eyeing proposals to improve Medicare benefits, expand Medicaid and reduce prescription drug costs in their $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package. This is America Dissected. I’m your host Dr. Abdul El-Sayed.


I’ll never forget the first Olympics that I was old enough to watch. It was 1996 and the Olympics were held right here in Atlanta. I’d convinced my parents to buy me one of those guides that lay out the storylines and what to watch. We needed those back in the day before the Internet. I had a huge crush on Olympic gymnast Dominique Moceanu, who would go on to win an Olympic gold medal as one of the Magnificent Seven who took gold on the heroics of Kerri Strug. Muhammad Ali, my childhood and adulthood hero, carried the Olympic flame on its final leg, lighting the Olympic torch. And the dream team, the USA men’s basketball team featured Shaq, Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley on one team. It was the ’90s, a moment that at that time felt post-historic, but having lived through 9/11, the Great Recession, the Trump presidency and the pandemic, from here, it feels almost prehistoric. But even then, the Olympics were not without their issues.


[news clip] Shortly after 1:00 this morning, police received a 911 call described as a calm American male voice warning of a bomb.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: The Olympic bombing took two lives and injured 111 others. But even beyond that, there were other issues, young athletes being pushed beyond their limits. Even when Kerri Strug landed that gold medal-clinching dismount, she was clearly injured. She was 18 and near the end of her gymnastics career. Since, the Olympics have only grown. The Tokyo Games will cost $15 billion, and that’s just to execute the games, that doesn’t include each country’s investment in their Olympic training program, the athletic sponsorships and all the lucrative TV deals. Mo money, mo problems. The process by which cities bid for hosting the Olympics is murky, at best, rife with bid rigging, bribery, vote buying, and geopolitical intrigue. It’s an autocrat’s dream, and strongmen of enrich themselves from the lucrative contracts that flow from hosting the Olympic Games. Vladimir Putin allegedly made billions off of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. And then there’s the fact that the Russian team has been banned from participating under their flag because of a team-wide doping scandal. When Rio hosted the games, 75,000 people were displaced, just so a few thousand could compete, reaping millions in TV deals for the International Olympic Committee, a moribund, if not entirely corrupted institution that controls the Olympics. And then there’s this:


[news clip] Sha’Carri Richardson, the U.S. women’s 100 meter champion who dominated at the Olympic trials has tested positive for marijuana following that race. And this morning that has put her Olympic future in doubt.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Marijuana is many things, but it shouldn’t be illegal, and I’ve never before heard it described as performance enhancing. It’s impossible to interpret this outside the way that marijuana has been specifically weaponized against Black folks in America, putting hundreds of thousands of Black folks in jail for using or selling a drug off of which white-owned private equity firms are now making millions. But that’s not where it ends. There’s the ban on a particular kind of swimming cap designed to accommodate Black hair because the cap one quote “does not follow the natural form of the head.” What!? And then there’s the abuse of a U.S. Olympic hammer thrower for practicing her constitutional right to protest the national anthem. Oh, and the exclusion of two Namibian sprinters because of naturally high testosterone levels. And let’s not forget the fact that COVID isn’t nearly done with us yet. They’re about to hold a global event in a place where the most transmissible variant we’ve seen yet is spreading. That’s led to this:


[news clip] A top medical organization in Tokyo is calling for the Tokyo Olympics to be canceled.


[news clip] With nurses understaffed and overworked caring for COVID patients, the hospital took the unheard of step of publicly venting their opposition to the games.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: They’re not wrong. Only about 22% of the Japanese population is fully vaccinated, and just over a third have had any dose at all. Beyond Japan, COVID is ravaging many countries all over the world, particularly in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Much of that is driven by the Delta variant, which is up to 60% more transmissible than the wild type Sars-CoV-2 virus we dealt with at this time last year. Another big part of that is the fact that our corporate pharmaceutical structure has still prohibited the distribution of vaccines in countries all over the world. Now, if you were to design a global super-spreader event, it would look like the Olympics. Thousands of people from all over the world come to one place, where they live with each other for exactly two weeks. Then they all disperse back to their home countries. While the focus is on Delta, rightly, don’t forget that there remains the possibility of even new variants. Let’s hope we don’t have to learn about them because the Olympics. The Japanese government seems to have heard its people, at least a little bit. The games will be competed without fans in the stands, an eerie metaphor for the COVID moment overall, which forces the question: why are we doing this again? Look, as you well know by now, I’ve got a lot of concerns about this Olympics and the direction of the Olympics overall, but there’s another side to this argument. The Olympics are a microcosm of society and the people who make it. And we can’t just ignore the beauty in it just because of the flaws. That remains something inspiring about people striving to achieve the height of human excellence. I’d say even more than the Olympics, the Paralympics is where the inspiration is. I love the idea of the Olympics and Paralympics because of the athletes themselves. Their stories remind us about what it means to reach, to strive, to achieve. I also love the fact that it’s one of the rare events that brings people from all over the world together, rather than tearing them apart. This year’s Olympics are particularly poignant. We’ve just lived through a global pandemic, but perhaps no event in modern times has kept us so apart, whether it’s the near complete slowdown in international travel and exchange, or it’s just the fact that I couldn’t see my grandparents for months. The Olympics and Paralympics have the power to bring us back together, even if it’s just watching our best athletes compete. As we watch people who’ve dedicated their lives to the pursuit of excellence, perhaps it might remind us to do the same. And right now, I think we could all use that. I’m still wearing sweatpants.


COVID is now spiking across the country, not because of a variant or even any substantiated fears about the vaccine, but because people have lost trust in one another. And while I know that a two-week tournament thousands of miles away is probably not going to change that, I have to believe that the spirit behind the idea that people can come together to celebrate what’s best in us, that we aspire, that we strive—that that matters. And that’s why I’ll be watching these Olympics and Paralympics, rooting for Team USA, of course, but I’ll also be rooting for all of us. We could use a little cheering on. This week, I wanted to talk to somebody who’s been on the inside of the Olympic Games. I reached out to four-time Olympian and gold medal swimmer and my college classmate, Peter Vanderkaay, to give us an inside look at what competing in the Olympics is really like, and how this pandemic might change that. After the break.


[ad bread]


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Can you introduce yourself with the tape?


Peter Vanderkaay: Yes, I’m Peter Vanderkaay. I’m from Rochester, Michigan, went to the University of Michigan and swam there and I am a three-time Olympian and four-time Olympic medalist, two gold and two bronze.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I met Peter Vanderkaay in a biology class during my sophomore year of college at the University of Michigan. We were born in the same year, he grew up in the town where I was born, and that’s about where the similarities end. He just won an Olympic gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in the 4×200 meter relay, swimming with Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps. He’d go on to win two gold and two bronze medals across the four Olympics in which he swam. I’ve never been an Olympic athlete, and you probably haven’t either, so I invited Peter to tell us what it’s like, and how the particular circumstances of this pandemic might be shaping the experiences of the athletes we’ll watch compete over the next two weeks.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Can you tell us a little bit about what it’s like to be an Olympian?


Peter Vanderkaay: So it’s really kind of a surreal experience. For me growing up, it wasn’t a dream I had because I was actually not a really high-level swimmer as a youngster. It wasn’t until later in high school and then into college that I kind of catapulted up to the national and international level. But to be able to have that experience, there’s so much training that goes in behind getting to that level that it’s just a really good feeling, a very prideful feeling to see all that hard work pay off. And also to recognize the people that help you get there. For me, my friends, family, coaches, teammates—I kind of look at my accomplishments as something that we can all share together.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well, that’s because you’re an extremely humble and kind human being. I remember that from college. I remember also that you guys were always in the pool. Swimmers are, just practice way more than almost anybody else. Can you walk me through what, like a usual day in the life of an Olympic swimmer looks like?


Peter Vanderkaay: Sure. And yes, we do spend a lot of time in the pool. And part of that is because swimming is not something technically our bodies are designed to do. So you have to spend a lot of time training those different muscle groups in a certain way. For us, you know, training at that level, at least when I was in college and beyond training at the Olympic level, I was doing ten practices a week, about two hours of practice. So we do doubles Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and then a single on Wednesday and Saturday. So each of those is about two hours in the water. We also do roughly about an hour a day of what we call dry-land activity, which was, you know, cardio, weight lifting, core strength exercises—anything outside the pool that was helping us either be more flexible or stronger. So it ended up being kind of like a full-time job, you know, over 30 hours a week of physical activity. But when you’re in the moment, you know, that’s just kind of the routine you’re in. You don’t think twice about it


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And you qualify for the Olympics and you travel, and what’s it like to live in the Olympic Village?


Peter Vanderkaay: So the Olympic Village is kind of a neat experience. It’s like this fenced-in utopia where everyone is kind of in the same boat. You’re in these, you know, housing developments. It, typically in most of the games, you know, get rented or sold once the Olympics are over. So the amenities are actually pretty sparse. They’re not typically fully-furnished and don’t have a lot of nice amenities as they’re kind of just constructed. And that’s kind of where everybody stays. And then there’s a big cafeteria that they put up that, you know, feeds everybody. And there’s also some other things within the village, you know, exercise facilities and theaters and things to do. But it’s pretty simple and it’s tough to get in if you’re not an athlete. The security is really high. So you’re kind of just living in this fake little world. But it’s interesting to see everybody from all the countries be in that spot, kind of experiencing the same thing.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Can you give us a sense of what that’s like? I mean, did you build any relationships with folks that you didn’t otherwise know in your time at any of the four Olympics that you participated in?


Peter Vanderkaay: I really didn’t outside of the people that I kind of knew from other countries that were either in swimming or could speak English. Unfortunately for me, English is the only language I can speak well enough to communicate with anybody else. So it’s kind of funny that everyone’s nice and friendly, but they kind of keep to themselves a little bit. And language being a barrier is part of that. But, you know, you see all different types of people from all different types of sports and you can just kind of feel this energy that everyone’s really just excited and happy to be there.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah, I mean, it’s a lifetime opportunity. I’d also heard that the partying gets pretty crazy in the Olympic Village. Is that true?


Peter Vanderkaay: You know, I suppose that’s true. For the US athletes though, we’re all under a code of conduct. And, you know, when you’re in the village, you’re under that code of conduct. So any of the crazy stories that get pushed out there from whatever source is covering it, typically that happens outside the village or when athletes are done competing. The last thing people want, especially on the U.S. team, is to have people in the village partying while other athletes are still competing. Like, for example, swimming is the first week of really two weeks of the games. Once we’re done, we all kind of leave the village. You know, you end up staying in hotels or going home or whatever your schedule allows. So there are a lot of fun events to go to, corporate parties, things like that. But I never saw anything in the village that was really wild or crazy. I guess once everybody’s done the last night, you get people congregating for the closing ceremonies and it just becomes kind of a party. But that’s really just the last night.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I can’t imagine you’re in this place, you’re all together but this is the biggest stage of your life. I mean, you’ve worked 30 hours a week every week to get to this point and you’re here. How do you think about keeping your mind right and making sure that you can perform at the highest level you can, considering oftentimes you’ve traveled hundreds of miles from your home and you’re not at home, your usual go-to foods and activities aren’t there for you. How do you think about getting your mind right that way?


Peter Vanderkaay: So it’s part just, you know, visualizing, you know, the success that you want to have, but also being flexible enough to roll with the punches when you’re traveling, because you can’t control everything, especially when you’re thousands of miles away in a different country. You know, you just got to do the best you can sometimes. And I think the athlete mentality and the resilience of athletes to get to that level speaks for itself. You know, you can only do so much, control what you can control, and thankfully, in most scenarios, it’s kind of the same for everybody. So you’ve got to be able to live outside your comfort zone if things kind of deviate from your plan.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And of course, you guys are pretty accustomed to traveling to compete anyway, right? Whether it’s the Olympics or world championships or other kinds of global events. No?


Peter Vanderkaay: Correct. There’s World Championships every two years. There’s other big international events and national events. Usually when you get to this level, you’ve had quite a bit of experience going through that. And I’ll say this too Team USA does a fantastic job of prepping for the games and making sure they have all the resources and things that athletes need to make kind of a home away from home.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: We’ll be back for more with Olympic swimmer Peter Vanderkaay, after this break.


[ad break]


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: We’re back with more of my conversation with Olympic swimmer Peter Vanderkaay.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: This Olympics is quite different, given that it’s in the middle of a global pandemic and cases look to be rising in the home country. You know, put yourself back in your Olympic shoes, and how would this situation potentially change a) the experience of the Olympics and b) your preparation for it?


Peter Vanderkaay: So the preparation, obviously deferring a year is a challenge. In swimming, I wouldn’t say it arguably affects how you would train. You just kind of continue on that same path for another year, which mean it can be a challenge for people that have plans outside of, you know, 2020, whether they had to put that on hold or kind of ride it out. The other thing about the pandemic, I think, you know, for the experience of the athletes, so many of them are just thankful to be there with the worry that this might get canceled, that I think there there’s just a kind of a hope of optimism out there that at least we get a shot to compete. There might not be fans in the stands, our families won’t be able to come watch us, which is a shame and it’s nobody’s fault but it just kind of is what it is at this point and you’ve got to roll with the punches. So it’s going to be a very different experience for the athletes. I, I feel bad for the host country because it’s not going to be the celebration that they probably originally hoped, although I hope they can take pride in the fact that they’re still having the games and you know, that it’s going to be successful and we’re going to see some really cool competition.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah, I’m sure you have some former teammates with whom you swam who are swimming in this Olympics. What are you hearing from them, and what is their take away right now as they head into competition next week?


Peter Vanderkaay: I really think they’re just trying to tune out the fact that it’s going to be a little bit different and treat it like it’s still the Olympics. The energy, I think, will be different, you know if you’re swimming in a natatorium that doesn’t have any fans or limited capacity. It’s going to feel different, just like watching all the pro sports last season that didn’t have, you know, they played in empty arenas. It’s going to feel more like that from an energy level. But I think everyone’s going to be ready to go and they’re going to be excited about competing because it really is the only opportunity. And so many people have kind of sat around for the past year and a half with not too many opportunities to compete that I think this is going to be really exciting for the athletes.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah, and I’ve always grown up with a very romantic view of the Olympics and I just think it is, you know, there are rare, rare spaces that are carved out to just to value human achievement and human capacity and human will to to succeed that are truly international. And the Olympics is one of those things. And I think it brings us together in some pretty profound ways. There are, of course, downsides, right? It’s become very corporatized and, you know, in a lot of ways, the the will to win sometimes can overtake the ideals that the games were founded for. You know, as someone who’s participated, and for whom this has been a really big part of your life, what do the Olympics mean to you, in the fact that they’re going on even despite a global pandemic?


Peter Vanderkaay: It’s kind of hard to articulate exactly what it means, but when I think about the experience, I think about just the opportunity to represent my country, to represent my community, my family, my friends and teammates, everybody that got me to that point—there’s an immense sense of pride just to be able to represent whether it’s win or lose. I think that’s part of what the Olympics is about, as it’s just trying your best even at that level. I think that’s a really important point of the games, just participation, but also to take a competitive and try and win. Like you said, it’s kind of the, you know, the human spirit that go out there and try and win and do your best and. That, I guess, is a roundabout way of how I feel about the games and what it means. And I think you just see so many cool human moments, win or lose, that come out of these that really bring people together, especially globally. You know, it’s like you don’t speak the same language, but you kind of know what people are going through when you see the look on their face or the disappointment or the joy they’re feeling from winning or losing, it’s just, it’s somewhat anecdotal about our lives and everything we do.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah, I think that is really well said. I, you know, I grew up playing sports, obviously not at the same level. But, you know, the cool thing about playing a sport is that you can play it with anyone who knows how to play it. And, you know, when you start playing it, you’re playing the same language in some respects. And the drama that unfolds in any given game about effort and about opportunity and about loss and about winning and about camaraderie and gamesmanship and sportsmanship—those things, I think, you know, they are in some respects part of the symphony of our lives. And music does this, and there are so many activities that do this, drama, but sports is one of them. And I think the fact that it is a global pursuit and that you have countries from all over the world coming together after having suffered collectively, this global pandemic, I think is really meaningful. I want to ask you, you know, as someone who’s a lot closer to the Olympics than most of us are, what are some of the storylines you’re following this Olympic Games, and that we should be paying attention to?


Peter Vanderkaay: So the, and I follow swimming mostly, I mean, I’m really excited to see all the events and cheer on Team USA, but I’m somebody that I think is going to do some special stuff is Caleb Dressel on the men’s swim team. He’s just an outstanding talent. He’s so dynamic. He’s swimming the 50, 100, 100 fly and he’ll be on just about every Team USA relay. He’s arguably the best swimmer the world right now. And I’ve got to know him personally a little bit and he’s just an outstanding individual and somebody who will represent our country very, very well, I think, and I’m cheering for him and looking forward to seeing how he does. There’s quite a few young faces on Team USA on the swimming side, especially with the ladies, and I think they’re going to do great. I just can’t wait to see what happens. And hopefully they have a ton of success outside of that. You know, I’m not super familiar with all the storylines of the other sports, but there’s always stuff that emerges that that captivates the country. And I look forward to seeing that.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Absolutely. Well, we’ll be cheering right alongside with you. And we’re really grateful to you for both your efforts and your success on behalf of our country and in your sport and also taking the time to share with us your experience as an Olympian and what might be different in this COVID Olympics in 2020 or 2021. So that was Peter Vanderkaay. He is a four-time Olympian, Olympic gold medalist and just an all-around great guy. Peter, thank you so much for for joining us.


Peter Vanderkaay: Thanks, Abdul. Thanks for having me. It’s great to talk to you.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: As usual, here’s what I’m watching right now. I wish I didn’t have to keep telling you about the Delta variant, but it’s making it a lot harder not to do. It’s making its way across the country. But here’s the thing, it’s not doing so evenly. States where less than half of the population has been vaccinated have three times the COVID-19 infection rates as those where more than half have been vaccinated. The same holds across counties within states too. The outbreaks driving the increase in cases are nearly universally in counties with low vaccine rates. And among those who have been hospitalized or died of COVID-19, 97 out of every 100 weren’t vaccinated. The story of Delta is as much about the variant as it is about the vaccines. Delta is rapidly transmissible, sure, but the vaccines work against it. But there is some good news on this front. New evidence shows that while Delta is far more transmissible than previous variants, it’s not more virulent, it doesn’t cause worse disease in people who get it. In other news, new data shows that overdose deaths spiked by 30% over the past year. If you’ve lived through the last two years, I don’t have to tell you that this pandemic changed your life, even if you were lucky enough never to get COVID at all. For many people struggling with substance use, the loss of livelihoods and lifelines to other people have made this past 16 months unbearable. This 30% increase represents the largest number of overdose deaths ever recorded, and the biggest increase since 1999. It’s a reminder that the long tail of the mental health epidemic will stay with us long after the COVID-19 part of this pandemic is behind us. Finally, the Senate agreed to the basic framework for a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package, a mix of the original American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan that the White House proposed that didn’t get included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill. There’s a lot in this package, everything from investments in broadband to electric vehicle infrastructure. But it could also be a game changer for health care. The bill includes support to extend Medicaid, the public health care insurance program for low-income people in states that didn’t expand it through the Affordable Care Act. It’ll also plug obvious holes in Medicare, the insurance program for seniors and people with disabilities. It would fund vision, dental and hearing. There’s also potential to allow Medicare to finally negotiate prescription drug costs with manufacturers, which they’re currently legally prohibited from doing. All of these policies remind us that health care isn’t something we can just leave to people who want to make money off of it. Government has a clear and critical role in providing and protecting health care and looking out for folks.


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America Dissected is a product of Crooked Media. Our producer is Austin Fisher. Our associate producer is Olivia Martinez. Veronica Simonetti mixes and masters the show. Production support from Tara Terpstra, Lyra Smith, and Ari Schwartz. The theme song is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Sugiura. Our executive producers are Sarah Geismer, Sandy Girard and Me: Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, your host. Thanks for listening.