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The 1908 London Olympics, When Runners Drank Champagne as an Energy Drink

Updated: Apr 21

Dorando Pietri is helped across the finish line while holding a cork in his hand.

On June 24, 1908, history was made with the London Olympic Marathon, held amidst scorching heat on a newly resurfaced, unforgivingly hard track. A last-minute extension of nearly two miles solidified the marathon distance at 26 miles and 385 yards. The grueling conditions inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to pen a vivid account for The Daily Mail, capturing the harrowing image of the eventual victor: "the haggard, yellow face, the glazed, expressionless eyes, the long, black hair streaked across the brow."

Of the 55 starters from Windsor Castle, only 27 crossed the finish line, with most succumbing before the halfway point. Seeking a much-needed boost, some turned to unconventional but prevalent aids of the time: brandy, champagne, and even strychnine, once believed to enhance performance.

Competitors run past shops on the route between Windsor Castle and the White City Stadium.

Though unthinkable today, alcohol and strychnine cocktails were once considered endurance boosters, tracing their roots back to Ancient Greece and Imperial China. In the 19th century, competitive foot races, akin to long walks spanning vast distances, were the rage in Great Britain. Pedestrians were often advised to imbibe champagne during races, a tradition that carried over to marathoners, who received boozy encouragement from trainers or assistants following them in cars or on bicycles.

Commonly used substances in sports included a range from various alcohols to dangerous drugs like strychnine, heroin, or cocaine. These were believed to dull pain, boost aggressiveness, or provide a quick energy surge. Trainers concocted their own secret mixtures, and the use of heroin and cocaine as performance enhancers persisted until the 1920s when they were restricted to prescription-only status. Surprisingly, athletes continued to consume alcohol during competitions well into the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Alcohol, prized for its stimulating effects and high sugar content, was particularly favoured. Champagne, with its perceived revitalising effervescence, was a popular choice. Additionally, low doses of strychnine were thought to rejuvenate weary athletes, as its lethal properties as a pesticide were not yet known.

The effectiveness of these substances seemed evident at times. In the inaugural modern Olympic Games of 1896, Greek marathoner Spiridon Louis famously downed a glass of cognac with six miles remaining, propelling him to victory. Similarly, at the 1904 St. Louis Olympic Marathon, winner Thomas Hicks endured scorching heat by sipping a concoction of strychnine, brandy, and egg whites. In the 1908 Chicago Marathon, janitor-turned-runner Albert Corey credited his victory to a consistent supply of champagne.

Dorando Pietri after the race

During the 1908 Olympic Marathon, several runners, including the top four finishers, reportedly consumed alcohol or strychnine cocktails during the race.

Tom Longboat, the favourite at the London Games after his Boston Marathon win, succumbed to the oppressive heat and never finished. Despite initially securing second place, Longboat's energy waned, leading him to resort to champagne for a boost. However, he collapsed two miles later, ending his race.

Charles Hefferon of South Africa also imbibed during the race but seemed to handle the conditions well initially. With a significant lead by mile 15, Hefferon appeared poised for victory. However, a champagne sip two miles from the finish line caused severe stomach pains, ultimately costing him the gold as he finished third.

At the finish line, Arthur Conan Doyle and a crowd of 80,000 eagerly awaited the triumphant victor. However, instead of the anticipated hero, they were greeted by Italian pastry chef Dorando Pietri, described by Conan Doyle as a "little man, with red running-drawers," staggering as he entered amidst thunderous applause. In the final stretch, an exhausted Pietri collapsed five times, veered off course, and even received medical attention over his heart.

In a famous photograph capturing Pietri's finish, he clutches a hollowed cork wedge, commonly used by endurance runners to alleviate hand strain but also serving as a vessel for wine, brandy, and other energizing drinks. Concern for Pietri's well-being led to him being assisted across the finish line by a doctor, ultimately resulting in his disqualification and a reshuffling of the race's medals. Some speculate Pietri's struggles were due to intoxication, while others suggest strychnine poisoning, a fate possibly shared with Tom Longboat.

However, not all runners who indulged in alcohol fared poorly. Johnny Hayes, the de facto gold medallist, confessed to a fortifying swig of brandy mid-race, while bronze medallist Joseph Forshaw also relied on brandy to alleviate a side stitch, claiming it invigorated him for the final stretch. At the time, wine was believed to be a better rehydration option than water, a notion exemplified by the 1924 Paris Games' provision of wine at rehydration stations.

Today, with a better understanding of alcohol's effects on muscles and hydration, trainers no longer advocate for strychnine cocktails or champagne breaks during races. However, alcohol still holds a place in some races, such as the Marathon de Médoc in French wine country, where runners can enjoy 23 different glasses of wine along the route. Yet, it's understood that these indulgences are for enjoyment, not performance enhancement.



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