A Sporting Chance
My expectations of the London Olympics’ opening ceremony were so low that, I suppose, I would have been impressed if it had featured Boris as Boudicca, driving a chariot over the prostate figures of the Locog committee. (Actually, now that I think about it, that would have been fairly entertaining.)
Appalled by the organising committee’s slavishly sycophantic attitude towards its sponsors and their ‘rights’ – which caused them to ban home knitted cushions from being distributed to the Olympic athletes, and to require shops and restaurants to remove Olympic-themed decorations and products – as well the rule that online articles and blog posts may not link to the official 2012 site if they’re critical of the games, the decision to make the official entrance of the Olympic site a shopping mall, and the creation of special lanes for VIP traffic, I wasn’t terribly impressed by the London Olympics.
But watching the opening ceremony last night, I was reduced to a pile of NHS-adoring, Tim Berners-Lee worshipping, British children’s literature-loving goo. Although a reference to the British Empire – other than the arrival of the Windrush – would have been nice, I think that Danny Boyle’s narrative of British history which emphasised the nation’s industrial heritage, its protest and trade union movements, and its pop culture, was fantastic.
As some commentators have noted, this was the opposite of the kind of kings-and-queens-and-great-men history curriculum which Michael Gove wishes schools would teach. Oh and the parachuting Queen and Daniel Craig were pretty damn amazing too.
There was even a fleeting, joking reference to the dire quality of British food during the third part of the ceremony. There was something both apt, but also deeply ironic about this. On the one hand, there has been extensive coverage of Locog’s ludicrous decision to allow manufacturers of junk food – Coke, Cadbury’s, McDonald’s – not only to be official sponsors of a sporting event, but to provide much of the catering. (McDonald’s even tried to ban other suppliers from selling chips on the Olympic site.)
But, on the other, Britain’s food scene has never been in better shape. It has excellent restaurants – and not only at the top end of the scale – and thriving and wonderful farmers’ markets and street food.
It’s this which makes the decision not to open up the catering of the event to London’s food trucks, restaurants, and caterers so tragic. It is true that meals for the athletes and officials staying in the Village have been locally sourced and made from ethically-produced ingredients, and this is really great. But why the rules and regulations which actually make it more difficult for fans and spectators to buy – or bring their own – healthy food?
Of course, the athletes themselves will all be eating carefully calibrated, optimally nutritious food. There’s been a lot of coverage of the difficulties of catering for so many people who eat such a variety of different things. The idea that athletes’ performance is enhanced by what they consume – supplements, food, and drugs (unfortunately) – has become commonplace.
Even my local gym’s café – an outpost of the Kauai health food chain – serves meals which are, apparently, suited for physically active people. I’ve never tried them, partly because the thought of me as an athlete is so utterly nuts. (I’m an enthusiastic, yet deeply appalling, swimmer.)
The notion that food and performance are linked in some way, has a long pedigree. In Ancient Greece, where diets were largely vegetarian, but supplemented occasionally with (usually goat) meat, evidence suggests that athletes at the early Olympics consumed more meat than usual to improve their performance. Ann C. Grandjean explains:
Perhaps the best accounts of athletic diet to survive from antiquity, however, relate to Milo of Croton, a wrestler whose feats of strength became legendary. He was an outstanding figure in the history of Greek athletics and won the wrestling event at five successive Olympics from 532 to 516 B.C. According to Athenaeus and Pausanius, his diet was 9 kg (20 pounds) of meat, 9 kg (20 pounds) of bread and 8.5 L (18 pints) of wine a day. The validity of these reports from antiquity, however, must be suspect. Although Milo was clearly a powerful, large man who possessed a prodigious appetite, basic estimations reveal that if he trained on such a volume of food, Milo would have consumed approximately 57,000 kcal (238,500 kJ) per day.
Eating more protein – although perhaps not quite as much as reported by Milo of Croton’s fans – helps to build muscle, and would have given athletes an advantage over other, leaner competitors.
Another ancient dietary supplement seems to have been alcohol. Trainers provided their athletes with alcoholic drinks before and after training – in much the same way that contemporary athletes may consume sports drinks. But some, more recent sportsmen seem to have gone a little overboard, as Grandjean notes:
as recently as the 1908 Olympics, marathon runners drank cognac to enhance performance, and at least one German 100-km walker reportedly consumed 22 glasses of beer and half a bottle of wine during competition.
Drunken, German walker: I salute you and your ability to walk in a straight line after that much beer.
The London Olympic Village is, though, dry. Even its pub only serves soft drinks. With the coming of the modern games – which coincided with the development of sport and exercise science in the early twentieth century – diets became the subject of scientific enquiry. The professionalization of sport – with athletes more reliant on doing well in order to make a living – only served to increase the significance of this research.
One of the first studies on the link between nutrition and the performance of Olympic athletes was conducted at the 1952 games in Helsinki. The scientist E. Jokl (about whom I know nothing – any help gratefully received) demonstrated that those athletes who consumed fewer carbohydrates tended to do worse than those who ate more. Grandjean comments:
His findings may have been the genesis of the oft-repeated statement that the only nutritional difference between athletes and nonathletes is the need for increased energy intake. Current knowledge of sports nutrition, however, would indicate a more complex relationship.
As research into athletes’ diets has progressed, so fashions for particular supplements and foods have emerged over the course of the twentieth century. Increasing consumption of protein and carbohydrates has become a common way of improving performance. Whereas during the 1950s and 1960s, athletes simply ate more meat, milk, bread, and pasta, since the 1970s, a growing selection of supplements has allowed sportsmen and –women to add more carefully calibrated and targeted forms of protein and carbohydrates to their diets.
Similarly, vitamin supplements have been part of athletes’ diets since the 1930s. Evidence from athletes competing at the 1972 games in Munich demonstrated widespread use of multivitamins, although now, participants tend to choose more carefully those vitamins which produce specific outcomes.
But this history of shifting ideas around athletes’ diets cannot be understood separately from the altogether more shadowy history of doping – of using illicit means of improving one’s performance. Even the ancient Greeks and Romans used stimulants – ranging from dried figs to animal testes – to suppress fatigue and boost performance.
More recently, some of the first examples of doping during the nineteenth century come from cycling (nice to see that some things don’t change), and, more specifically, from long-distance, week-long bicycle races which depended on cyclists’ reserves of strength and stamina. Richard IG Holt, Ioulietta Erotokritou-Mulligan, and Peter H. Sönksen explain:
A variety of performance enhancing mixtures were tried; there are reports of the French using mixtures with caffeine bases, the Belgians using sugar cubes dripped in ether, and others using alcohol-containing cordials, while the sprinters specialised in the use of nitroglycerine. As the race progressed, the athletes increased the amounts of strychnine and cocaine added to their caffeine mixtures. It is perhaps unsurprising that the first doping fatality occurred during such an event, when Arthur Linton, an English cyclist who is alleged to have overdosed on ‘tri-methyl’ (thought to be a compound containing either caffeine or ether), died in 1886 during a 600 km race between Bordeaux and Paris.
Before the introduction of doping regulations, the use of performance enhancing drugs was rife at the modern Olympics:
In 1904, Thomas Hicks, winner of the marathon, took strychnine and brandy several times during the race. At the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1932, Japanese swimmers were said to be ‘pumped full of oxygen’. Anabolic steroids were referred to by the then editor of Track and Field News in 1969 as the ‘breakfast of champions’.
But regulation – the first anti-drugs tests were undertaken at the 1968 Mexico games – didn’t stop athletes from doping – the practice simply went underground. The USSR and East Germany allowed their representatives to take performance enhancing drugs, and an investigation undertaken after Ben Johnson was disqualified for doping at the Seoul games revealed that at least half of the athletes who competed at the 1988 Olympics had taken anabolic steroids. In 1996, some athletes called the summer Olympics in Atlanta the ‘Growth Hormone Games’ and the 2000 Olympics were dubbed the ‘Dirty Games’ after the disqualification of Marion Jones for doping.
At the heart of the issue of doping and the use of supplements, is distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate means of enhancing performance. The idea that taking drugs to make athletes run, swim, or cycle faster, or jump further and higher, is unfair, is a relatively recent one. It’s worth noting that the World Anti-Doping Agency, which is responsible for establishing and maintaining standards for anti-doping work, was formed only in 1999.
What makes anabolic steroids different from consuming high doses of protein, amino acids, or vitamins? Why, indeed, was Caster Semenya deemed to have an unfair advantage at the 2009 IAAF World Championships, but the blade-running Oscar Pistorius is not?
I’m really pleased that both Semenya and Pistorius are participating in the 2012 games – I’m immensely proud that Semenya carried South Africa’s flag into the Olympic stadium – but their experiences, as well as the closely intertwined histories of food supplements and doping in sport, demonstrate that the idea of an ‘unfair advantage’ is a fairly nebulous one.
Elizabeth A. Applegate and Louis E. Grivetti, ‘Search for the Competitive Edge: A History of Dietary Fads and Supplements,’ The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 127, no. 5 (2007), pp. 869S-873S.
Ann C. Grandjean, ‘Diets of Elite Athletes: Has the Discipline of Sports Nutrition Made an Impact?’ The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 127, no. 5 (2007), pp. 874S-877S.
Richard IG Holt, Ioulietta Erotokritou-Mulligan, and Peter H. Sönksen, ‘The History of Doping and Growth Hormone Abuse in Sport,’ Growth Hormone & IGF Research, vol. 19 (2009), pp. 320-326.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.