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Athletes Once Drank Rat Poison and Champagne Cocktails to Improve Performance

Being a professional athlete is no easy feat. Near-constant workouts can place immense strain on the body, and high-stakes events demand competitors to be at their peak physical form. As such, despite their illegality, it historically hasn’t been uncommon for pro athletes to turn to performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to give them a leg up. While human growth hormones and anabolic steroids like testosterone and androstenedione are the most common PEDs of choice in the modern world, athletes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had a boozier approach to improving their performance: cocktails made from alcohol and strychnine, a.k.a. rat poison.

There wasn’t much research on strychnine at the time, and many coaches and trainers believed the toxic pesticide improved athletic performance as it increased the strength of muscle contractions. In large doses, strychnine could cause extreme muscle convulsions, asphyxia, and ultimately death. But back then, trainers combined low doses of the pesticide with high-sugar alcohols like Champagne or brandy to create what they perceived as an endurance booster for exhausted competitors.

According to Dr. Matthew Barnes, deputy head of the School of Sport, Exercise, and Nutrition at New Zealand’s Massey University, the use of alcohol during sporting events dates all the way back to ancient Greece and Imperial China. But its modern implication can be traced back to the 19th century when pedestrianism, a 450-mile foot race along a track, was popular. During these races, it wasn’t uncommon to see competitors guzzling Champagne for energy boosts at their doctors’ recommendations.

While it isn’t entirely clear when strychnine was first consumed to enhance performance, one of the most infamous instances of its use was during the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. On the day of the marathon competition, temperatures reached a stifling 95 degrees, which, combined with the near-impossibility of the course, made for an extremely challenging race. Seven miles from the finish line, runner Thomas Hicks was in rough shape, dehydrated and entirely exhausted. But instead of pulling him from the race, Hicks’ support team plied the runner with a cocktail made from strychnine, brandy, and sulfates to push him forward.

Hicks finished the race, but by many accounts, the athlete began hallucinating approximately two miles from the finish. “Over the last two miles of the road, Hicks was running mechanically,” noted Charles Lucas, the marathon’s race official, after the competition. “His eyes were dull, lusterless; the ashen color of his face and skin had deepened; his arms appeared as weights well tied down; he could scarcely lift his legs, while his knees were almost stiff.” Though he did win the event’s gold medal, he still had to be carried over the finish line.

Credit: Public Domain – Wikimedia Commons

Hicks was not the only athlete in history to win a race in this risky manner, with many contestants at the 1908 London Olympic marathon imbibing on similar alcohol-and-strychnine cocktails to push them through the race, which had been mistakenly extended to 26.2 miles. At the end of the event, winner Dorando Pietri was photographed crossing the finish line with a wine cork in hand. A few months later at the Chicago marathon, runner Albert Corey pegged Champagne as the reason he won the grueling race.

Credit: Public Domain – Wikimedia Commons

While strychnine-laced cocktails helped some athletes come out on top, the vast majority were negatively impaired. Take Tom Longboat, for example, who collapsed and was forced to drop out of the 1908 marathon at the London games after swigging Champagne, or Charles Hefferon, who dropped from first place to third in the same race after a similar concoction gave him intense stomach pain.

Despite the fact that strychnine has been extremely restricted since 1988 and is currently banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, some athletes have still turned to the substance to increase their performance in the last decade. In 2016, Kyrgyz weightlifter Izzat Artykov secured a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics, only to have it revoked days later after a drug test revealed he had strychnine in his system. Three years later, Kenyan marathoner Felix Kirwa was disqualified from races and banned from competing for nine months after testing positive for the substance.

Thankfully, many trainers and coaches keep their athletes far away from strychnine. Alcohol, though, remains a mainstay at several non-professional races — like the Marathon du Médoc, where runners can taste 23 wines as they make their way through the course. That sounds much more enjoyable than rat poison.

*Image retrieved from Halfpoint via stock.adobe.com

The article Athletes Once Drank Rat Poison and Champagne Cocktails to Improve Performance appeared first on VinePair.

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