Gemma Castaño, una científica en los Juegos Olímpicos

  • Pau Rubio
    Pau Rubio , Communications Coordinator. Campus MAR
  • Gemma Castaño: A Scientist at the Olympics

    02.8.2021
    Gemma Castano JJOO Tokio post 1.jpg

    She’s not an athlete, but she is among the global elite in athletics. She doesn’t compete, but she is at the Olympic Games. So what, exactly, is a scientist like Gemma Castaño doing at the Tokyo Olympics?

    She doesn’t compete, but she is at the Olympic Games. So what, exactly, is a scientist like Gemma Castaño doing at the Tokyo Olympics?

    Gemma’s path towards becoming a scientist was a gradual one. First, she studied environmental sciences. Then she earned a PhD in environmental epidemiology. Since then, for the past two decades, she has been working as a scientific coordinator, first at the now-defunct Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL) and later at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal).

    Gemma’s passion for athletics, in contrast, is something she grew up with. Her parents served as judges at competitions. Starting at age 16, Gemma followed in their footsteps, rising through the ranks and passing exam after exam, before finally becoming an international judge in 2013. Today, she is one of 36 people in the world certified by World Athletics to act as an International Technical Official (ITO), as the referees of the world’s highest-level competitions are known.

    She is one of 36 people in the world certified by World Athletics to act as an International Technical Official, as the referees of the world’s highest-level competitions are known

    After having served as a judge at competitions such as the Spanish Championships and the 2017 World Championships in London, Gemma is now making her debut at the Olympic Games, where she is one of 10 ITOs chosen to team up with local judges and supervise the athletic events for just over a week.

    An Well-Rounded Profile

    As an international athletics judge, Gemma has risen to the highest level; as a doctor in environmental epidemiology, she works at a Severo Ochoa Centre of Excellence. Dr. Castaño specialises in project coordination, although she combines her management responsibilities with research tasks such as writing scientific articles, analysing data and handling media relations. She currently combines her work on radiation projects such as GERoNiMO and a study currently under development on the possible health effects of 5G exposure with other projects such as COVICAT and CONTENT, which analyse the mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    She currently combines her work on radiation projects such as GERoNiMO and a study currently under development on the possible health effects of 5G exposure with other projects such as COVICAT and CONTENT, which analyse the mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic

    Likewise, in athletics, she is used to working on all sorts of events, in both the men’s and women’s categories. At the Tokyo Olympics, Gemma’s work will focus on the long jump and the women’s heptathlon. She will also be involved in the women’s shot put and her favourite event, the pole vault—the spectacular feat of leaping more than 6 metres into the air with only the help of a pole.

    Losing by a Pin

    Of all the situations Gemma has experienced as an international judge, she particularly remembers one that took place during the women’s long jump final at the 2017 World Championships. Ivana Španović, one of the top favourites, thought she had clinched first place after her last jump, which had apparently exceeded 7 metres. Gemma found herself in the uncomfortable position of having to certify that the jump had, in fact, been 6.91 metres, which not only deprived the Serbian athlete of a gold medal, but also kept her off the podium entirely. A safety pin had come loose at the worst possible moment, causing Španović’s paper bib to touch the sand and, as the rules dictated at the time, shortening her leap by a few crucial centimetres. At the next competition, Španović showed up with dozens of safety pins securing her bib to her jersey.

    Scientific Project With World Athletics

    Gemma has been fortunate enough to combine her two passions through a research project called Air Quality and Athletics Performance (AQAP). In elite sports, where competitions can be decided by millimetres or hundredths of a second, the details are crucial. AQAP researchers set out to determine whether air pollution has an impact on athletes’ performance, installing air-quality monitors in ten stadiums around the world. Unfortunately, the project has been suspended as a result of the pandemic and its future is currently uncertain.

    Gemma has been fortunate enough to combine her two passions through a research project that aims to determine whether air pollution has an impact on athletes’ performance

    A “Voluntary Profession”

    After leaving the stadium and returning to the hotel where the 10 ITOs are staying, Gemma spoke with us by teleconference. The schedule for Olympic ITOs is demanding and intense. Work days start at 7:00 am and end at 10:00 pm, with competitions running from morning to evening. The pandemic has made the conditions even tougher. Spectators have been banned and everyone must follow strict rules preventing them from visiting any place other than the hotel or the stadium. Unable to do any sightseeing once the athletics events are over, Gemma plans to leave for Nairobi, where she will continue her work for World Athletics at the U20 World Championships.

    It is, in Gemma’s words, a “voluntary profession”: highly demanding and with only symbolic compensation, intended merely to defray expenses

    It is, in Gemma’s words, a “voluntary profession”: highly demanding and with only symbolic compensation, intended merely to defray expenses. This is why, while some of you may be reading this from the beach or the mountains, Gemma is spending her summer at the Olympic Games: it will most likely be an unforgettable holiday.