Good Legs, Great Body; Olympians & Wine
In the month of the Olympics, we take a look at wine’s surprising role in the athletics of the Ancient, and not so Ancient, world.
In just under a month, I, like thousands of others, will take on the wine-soaked challenge which is Le Marathon du Medoc. A 26.2 mile slog famous for its picture-postcard route through Bordeaux amongst the various Chateaux and vineyards of this most prestigious area of the wine world. With glasses of wine handed out to the runners every mile or so, from some of the most exalted names in viticultural history such as Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and Pichon-Longueville, the opportunity seemed literally too good to miss. What could possibly go wrong for someone who has never run further than the length of a football pitch?
The marathon was started back in the eighties by, surprisingly enough, four doctors and a friend. They set out to create a running event which rather controversially focuses on pleasure rather than pain. The event actively discourages anyone who wishes to break records or is, in their terms, “stressed out” – it is in a way the very epitome of what wine should be – fun.
You may rightly question the health benefits of a race which prides itself on outright decadence. And with enough plonk to pickle a regiment available to the runners, and stations handing out foie gras, grilled steak, ice-cream and oysters in place of the usual energy gels, you may well be right. Le Marathon is probably the only race in the world to have a cheese course. However, history could well be on mine and my fellow runners’ side…
Wine and athletics have a surprisingly long and intertwined history dating back centuries. Much of it centres on those proponents of physical perfection – the Ancient Greeks. These early athletes were just as susceptible to dietary fads as we are today, particularly in pursuit of honing their prowess in competitions. The ‘Cave Man’ meat-only diet, carb-loading, protein obsession – none of these are new phenomena. In 2004 National Geographic commented that the Ancient Greeks followed a kind of Atkin’s diet in a bid to gain any kind of advantage in the earliest forms of the Olympics. Wine, it was to be believed, had a role to play too. The most famous physician of Classical Greece Hippocrates prescribed getting drunk once or twice to “cure the sore muscles” of competing athletes.
In an account of these early games from 200AD we meet Milo. An Ancient Olympian wrestler from Croton, he was said to have had the following attitude towards his diet and wine intake before matches; “Milon of Croton used to eat 20 pounds of meat and as many of bread, and he drank three pitchers of wine. And at Olympia he put a four-year-old bull on his shoulders and carried it around the stadium; after which, he cut it up and ate it all alone in a single day.” Even in the Medoc, I’m not quite sure three pitchers of wine would be the wisest of race companions, and as for the bull around my shoulders…
However, the companionship of wine and Olympiads didn’t end with the twilight of the Ancient world. So now we turn to a rather wonderful tale from the first Modern Olympics, held in 1894, and Spyridon Louis. Spyridon was a Greek water carrier who made it through the qualifying rounds to compete in the first of the modern-era marathon races in Marathon itself. The Greek public were anxious to see one of their own nationals take the title as so far only foreign competitors had won medals at any of the track or field events. The situation was not looking favourable however, as after several miles the French participant (Albin Lermusiaux) was out in the lead. Until at least, Spyridon Louis entered the town of Pikermi.
Here he stopped (mid-race) at the local inn, and and drank a glass of wine. Louis then asked how far ahead the other runners were. Upon hearing he was behind the pack he confidently declared he would over take them and set off again, casual as you like. True to his word, Louis became the first modern Olympic marathon gold-medal winner. When asked by the King of Greece what his reward would be, Louis asked for a donkey drawn carriage to help carry his water. Incidentally, a fellow Greek competitor who finished third was disqualified for using a carriage for part of his journey, something I too have considered for September.
Now of course we know of the real dangers of alcohol intake in terms of body repair, dehydration and risk of heart disease – which our ancestor’s only had the vaguest ideas on. Alcohol has a detrimental effect on anyone looking to undertake serious physical activity, as it alters the water intake of cells, promotes dehydration and can lead to high blood pressure or injury (for more information see here https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/the-running-blog/2014/apr/23/how-does-alcohol-affect-athletic-performance). The Marathon in Medoc provides a great outlet for a bit of fun and certain silliness and one I am greatly looking forward to, but wine’s only real role these days in sport is as a well deserved treat long after the finish line has been reached. And I for one, cannot wait…