The Olympics, whether the ancient games or the modern games, have always brought out the competitive spirit in athletes. The goal is more than just a precious metal medal, after all you can buy gold, silver, and bronze. Athletes at the olympics are out to prove they’re the best, sometimes by any means necessary.
In the days before steroids, human growth hormone, and other proven performance-enhancing drugs turned some athletes superhuman, competitors looked to anything that might give them an edge over the competition. They took what they could, even if it seems like a terrible idea to us today. The perfect example is the 1908 Olympics, specifically, the marathon.
Today, the idea of drinking a bottle of champagne before running 26.2 miles in the middle of summer is enough to make anyone cringe. Most of us would prefer to stay at brunch and order another round. In the 1908 Olympics marathon in London, champagne was a preworkout and rat poison was like Gatorade.
By the time of the early modern olympics, endurance racing was a fad sport, designed mostly so wealthy Britons could gamble on them. They often set up walking courses of a hundred miles or more, just to bet on them. These endurance races only got more and more grueling as time went on and bets got more interesting. One race was allegedly a race against time: 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours. In order to keep going through these long treks, walkers (and later, runners) fueled up on champagne – by the bottle.
If it feels like hydrating with champagne is a bad idea, that’s because it really is, but people in the late 1800s didn’t know that. For centuries, people (and doctors, who are rumored to be people) believed alcohol had beneficial effects, especially for athletes. Both the ancient Greeks and the ancient Chinese cultures held alcohol in high regard as an athletic supplement. It was just generally accepted thought.
By the time the modern olympics restarted in 1896, people the world over still held these beliefs, with some pretty specific ideas in mind. Champagne, for example, was a popular performance enhancer. Runners believed the bubbly’s bubbles had a restorative effect on the body and the stomach. Greek runner Spiridon Louis, winner of the marathon event at the 1896 Athens Olympics, imbibed cognac to help get him across the last 10 kilometers.
They weren’t entirely wrong about alcohol, as the sugars in the wine was a source of calories, but when the time came for the London Olympics, trainers were still handing out bottles of wine to weary runners like it was Brawndo the Thirst Mutilator .
Of course, once everyone in the olympics is using a performance-enhancing drug, especially the same performance-enhancing drug, runners are going to need to find a new PED to give them the edge over those using the first drug. Eventually, they began to mix other substances into their champagne. The new cocktails were questionable for runners at best and dangerous to humans at worst.
This was the age of the patent medicine, questionable tonics with even more questionable ingredients, said to cure everything from venereal disease to cancers and everything in between. They were just as popular in England as they were at home. Of course they were: Many of them were filled with opium, heroin, and cocaine, all of which are good for a headache. Probably.
The trouble is that many of the physical and medical effects of these concoctions were unknown to the general public, and drug cocktails remained a mainstay of competitive sports, whether the athletes knew (or cared) about the risks. They wanted to win, remember?
In the 1904 Olympics, American runner Thomas Hicks had a secret concoction of his own, made up of strychnine and sulfate in egg whites, all mixed with a slug of brandy. He won that marathon using (or in spite of) the poisonous mixture. In the 1908 Olympics, he wasn’t alone. Multiple athletes were using strychnine (which is today used as rat poison) as a performance-enhancing drug.
Still, champagne was by far the most popular. Runners from Canada, South Africa, and Italy were all fueled by champagne. All three of those competitors collapsed before crossing the finish line, though they were also using strychnine, which could have been just as effective at ending their race. And their lives.
By the end of this early race, it was medical science that prevailed. The only problem was that medical science during the 1908 Olympics held that wine was better than water for dehydration. So both the gold medalist and the bronze medalist used brandy to fix their dehydration problems and crossed the finish line without incident.