News & Opinion | June 23, 2018 5:00 am

Athletes Once Downed Champagne—and Strychnine—for Energy Boost

Runners at the 1908 London Olympic Marathon imbibed in the bubbly during the race.

June 24, 1908 was a historic day. The London Olympic Marathon was held in the blistering heat, and a newly resurfaced track was hard as rock under the runner’s feet. At the last minute, the course was extended nearly two miles, forever settling the official marathon length to 26 miles and 385 yards. These harsh conditions inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write a recap for The Daily Mail. In it, he wrote: “I caught a glimpse of the haggard, yellow face, the glazed, expressionless eyes, the long, black hair streaked across the brow,” he wrote of the eventual winner. Of the 55 runners who began the race at Windsor Castle, less than half  made it to the finish line. Most quit before they passed the midway point.

For those competitors that did make it to the finish line, many needed a mid-race boost, and so they turned to some sources that look absurd in retrospect: brandy, champagne, and even strychnine. Back then, alcohol and strychnine cocktails were considered the performance enhancers of their day, similar to today’s energy drinks. The roots of this myth can be traced back to the competitive foot races of the 19th century, which were essentially very long walks that would last as long as hundreds of miles. Those participants were told to drink a lot of champagne during the competition for its high sugar content and it seemed to work. As a result of this custom, athletic coaches and assistants frequently gave marathoners booze for a little boost on into the 20th century.