A Brief History of Olympic Drinking

Olympics Features
A Brief History of Olympic Drinking

The Beer Mile may not be an Olympic sport—yet—but alcohol is as much a part of the history of the Games as the torch relay or doping allegations. Though the competitors in Rio probably won’t drink during competition, booze has a surprisingly rich history at the Olympics.

The first modern Olympiad was held in Athens in 1896. The grand finale of the games was to be the marathon, a retracing of the 20-something-mile run of Pheidippides, who brought news to Athens that its army had defeated the Persians at Marathon in 490 BCE. The Greek hosts were very excited for this event, and the fact that Pheidippides collapsed and died immediately after delivering the news was apparently not enough to dampen their enthusiasm.

Indeed, several runners reportedly died training for the first marathon. That makes it all the more surprising that the event’s first winner, Spiridon Louis, was so casual about the whole thing.

The Greeks weren’t doing too well in the medal count. A loss in the marathon, a quintessentially Greek competition, would have been the honey on the baklava of their national embarrassment. But as the race got underway, Spiridon Louis didn’t let this pressure, or the fact that he was nowhere near first place, stop him from having a good time. When he reached the town of Pikemi and his future father-in-law offered him a glass of cognac, he graciously accepted.

After finishing his drink and assuring onlookers that he would win, Louis resumed the race. The Greeks at the finish line were despondent after a messenger reported that a Hungarian was leading the race, but Louis was running with a purpose and soon caught up. He moved into first place with a few miles to go, and the erstwhile leader promptly collapsed from exhaustion.

The Greeks went crazy when Louis crossed the finish line, escorted by Crown Prince Nicholas and his brother. The ensuing swell of national pride is credited with showing the world the inspirational power of the revived Olympics. I’d like to think that without Louis’ triumph the whole thing wouldn’t have caught on.

Thankfully, it did. So did drinking during the marathon.

At the 1908 games in London, South Africa’s Charles Hefferon looked to have the race locked up at the 24-mile marker. So, as anyone would, he accepted a celebratory draught of champagne.

If you’ve ever run a serious long-distance race, you can probably imagine what that did to his stomach. Hefferon’s intestinal distress caused him to slow to a walk, allowing an Italian baker named Dorando Pietri to take the lead.

Dazed, stumbling, and, by some accounts, vomiting, Pietri himself was in pretty bad shape. Accounts are sketchy, but some suggest he had had a swig of brandy to restore his strength while others posit he was drunk on Chianti.

Whatever he had imbibed, Pietri was looking about as rough as Hefferon. Luckily for him, the man running in second place was an American, and the crowd had no desire to see a Yank win the race. They essentially propped the Italian up and dragged him across the finish line, to the delight of an audience that included Queen Alexandra.

Pietri’s gold was soon stripped from him because of the minor technicality that he had not finished the race under his own power. Yet the Queen felt he deserved something for his gutsy, delirious performance. She bestowed upon him a silver cup, which he presumably filled with booze before his next race.

In Paris in 1928, runners’ aid stations along the marathon route offered both water and wine, though in a bit of a faux pas they neglected to serve hors d’oeuvres. Eventually, though, scientists discovered that alcohol is up there with turpentine and Big Macs on the list of things that should not be consumed during a race.

Hence no Olympic love for the Beer Mile. But are the games a dry affair? Hardly.

The U.S. team alone had two beer halls in their neighborhood of the London Olympic village in 2012. Some nations, like Australia, ban their athletes from bringing alcohol into the village, but athletes are adept at sneaking in beer, liquor, and drugs, both of the recreational and performance-enhancing variety. In recent years, Olympic villages have become known for their debauchery, and it’s no secret what’s fueling the party.

And the drinking doesn’t stop when the games are over. The U.S. team has made a sport of getting so wasted the night before their traditional post-Olympics meeting with the President that they’re still drunk during the White House photo op. According to one American Olympian, this practice began around the 1980s, but aren’t they really just observing the tradition that Spiridon Louis started way back in 1896?

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