Friday, 3 August 2012

Winning Olympic gold - thanks to strychnine and brandy!

A London Marathon banana - the clean athlete's stimulant of choice!

PEOPLE will do all sorts of things to win an Olympic medal in 2012. Some deliberately hit shuttlecocks into a net, some fall off their racing bike on purpose, others grow ridiculous sideburns.  Some tricks work, others don’t.

Nothing changes really.  A hundred years ago athletes also went to bizarre lengths to gain an advantage. Back then marathon runners took sips of strychnine, Champagne or white wine, glugged meaty Oxo drinks, and carefully clutched little corks in their hands to maintain concentration.

And who are we to laugh?  After all, it worked for Tommy Hicks!

Born in England, Hicks emigrated to the USA where he became a brass worker with a penchant for distance running. Aged 29 he won a remarkable marathon at the 1904 Olympics at St.Louis.  Conditions were awful, the course a rough dirt track enveloped by huge clouds of dust from support vehicles.

Hicks wasn’t even first to cross the finish-line, trailing behind a suspiciously fresh-looking Fred Lorz.  It would transpire that mischievous Fred had abandoned the race after only nine miles, at which point he hitched a lift in a car to the 20-mile point. When race officials told him his little ruse had been spotted and threw him out, he pleaded that it had only been a joke. Perhaps not the strongest of mitigating circumstances.

So Hicks was given the gold medal, but in view of what emerged later, perhaps he too should have been disqualified. To keep him plodding towards the finish, Hicks’ trusty assistants regularly supplied the type of thing Dennis Thatcher would later describe as a ‘livener.’  In Hicks case it involved a one-milligram grain of strychnine and some brandy. The first dose of strychnine seemed to give him a temporary boost, but after he started flagging again, he was given more of the same. It did the trick, but led to his collapse after crossing the finish line. It was good job nobody thought of giving him a third dose, said one doctor, for that might well have killed him.

The 1908 Marathon at the first London Olympics was staged in stifling heat and high humidity, which meant the runners were even more desperate than usual for any artificial aids their helpers could supply.

Fifty-five men from 16 nations lined up for the start outside the royal nursery at Windsor Castle Wing by special request of Princess Mary, who wanted her little boys to have the best view. Temperatures hovered around 26 degrees and runners soon began dropping like flies. Even the powerful Onondagan Indian known as Longboat wilted at the roadside. All manner of goodies were passed to the runners to help keep them upright, some of which worked and some evidently didn’t.

The likes of Gatorade and other sports drinks were still many decades away, of course, and simply drinking water was not regarded as a useful pursuit. The little Italian pastry chef Dorando Pietri was plied with his favourite Chianti wine, the supply continuing even after he started to wobble around the road. 

English-born runner Charlie Hefferon (S.Africa),  meanwhile, slaked his thirst with what he called “a draught of champagne” but admitted later it brought on severe stomach cramps and ruined his chance of victory after having led for most of the second half of the race.  American Johnny Hayes knew the hazards of fizzy drinks, and sipped happily on some brandy instead. He was given water but used it to wipe his face and didn’t drink a drop.

Little Pietri was first into the stadium, but four agonised and dramatic collapses on the cinder track, and the assistance he consequently received to cross the finish line, saw him disqualified. This was much to the dismay of the sympathetic British crowd and a horrified Queen Alexandra up in the royal box. It would make Pietri the most famous and courageous loser in Olympic history, but he was too exhausted and too drunk to notice as he was carted off on a stretcher. His consolation came later when Irving Berlin wrote a song about him and he was feted more than the actual winner.

It was reported that Pietri had been given a hypodermic of digitalis or strychnine just before he entered the stadium by a concerned physician who thought he was being helpful. No wonder he looked wobbly!

Boosted by his discreet brandy-sipping, Johnny Hayes cruised into the stadium 30 seconds later. He was subsequently and rather grudgingly given the gold medal by the British officials who’d spent almost the entire games in bad-tempered dispute with the American delegation.

All these years later we assume no performance-enhancing (or even performance-damaging) substances will be passed to the marathon runners at London 2012.  However, it is a fact that such behaviour is as old as the  Olympic Games themselves. From 776 BC athletes routinely boosted performance with hallucinogenic mushrooms, plants and mixtures of wine and herbs. Right through to 1928, when doping was officially outlawed, all sorts of potions were in use, with each nation trying to cook up their own secret formula.

More recently, of course, the cheats use the latest biotechnology. The drugs of choice have ranged from anabolic steroids to human growth hormones and from blood-boosting erythropoietin (EPO) to stimulants.  

Down here at the sharp end, your Clapped-Out Runner continues to use nothing more sinister than coffee, bananas and the occasional Jaffa cake on race day. They make me feel a bit livelier and get me to the finish line, although I have to report that they don’t prevent me occasionally getting lost in trail races.

A wrong turn in the Mid-Essex Casuals event from Hatfield Peverel last weekend saw me lose 15 minutes and become totally lost in a wood. It was a good effort, but not quite as impressive as that of my club colleague James H-J, whose recent run at the Fairlands Valley Spartans 50k Challenge was accidentally extended by a massive FIVE MILES due to a navigational mishap.

As a result of episodes like this, our club (Tiptree Road Runners) is seriously considering a new annual award for 'Wrong Turn of the Year’.  I regard this as a worrying development, because I suspect some people actually enjoy the drama of getting lost - and the incentive of winning a trophy for going wrong might see a sharp increase in our runners going missing mid-race. 

Surely if there’s going to be any cheating, it might be better to copy our forefathers and stick to the old roadside alcohol trick.  Champagne anyone?     

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s published books on running, at

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