Wherein the Greeks know the best way to stay hydrated while exercising is to get tore up.
Sports drink commercials feature a veritable tsunami of fluids: sweat dripping and running from well-toned athletes, sports drinks pouring from wide-mouthed bottles down the gulping gullets of said athletes, Leonardo DiCaprio sinking blue into the ocean depths…okay, maybe not the last part, but nonetheless a LOT of fluid. As an overview of a new Gatorade campaign proclaims, “The glory of sweating…sweat should be celebrated, not demonised.” Of course, we might also note the article doesn’t similarly announce, “Body odor should be celebrated, not demonised…SNIFF THE PIT,” but still…
There is a long-standing debate regarding the benefits of sports drinks versus plain water—experts generally say sports drinks have some benefits for intense physical activity, but water should be the primary source of hydration. In a cover-your-bases move Gatorade, wanting to tap into the vast “elite athlete in your imagination” market, has therefore just announced its latest beverage-of-the-future: water. The ancient Greeks didn’t bother with this debate because they knew the best fluid for sports hydration is wine.
You Can Drink the Water, But I Will Drink the Wine
The Greeks, taking their cue from Egyptian medicine, believed wine—drunk in moderation—was effective for a wide array of medical conditions. For example, Rufus of Ephesus, writing in the 1st century CE, explains both some of the benefits and problems of wine,
Wine is more praiseworthy for health than any other thing; however, anyone who drinks it must be wise, if he does not wish to suffer some irreparable ill; for wine can encourage heat, fill the body with strength and digest food from all parts; and there is no wine that is not harmful so as not to produce these effects; but it has, as all other things, some inferior qualities and some superior qualities. Wine can also give pleasure to the soul in a certain state, since it is the remedy against grief…
The Greeks were certainly aware of problems caused by over-drinking. Hippocrates warned in the 5th century BCE that the head is negatively affected by the heat of wine, leading to disturbances of thinking and even delirium; he also pointed out a relationship between wine and certain cardio-pulmonary problems. Galen likewise noted in the 2nd century CE that wine can damage the liver and spleen. Nonetheless, wine is still good for what ails ’ya, as Hippocrates says, “Wine and honey are wonderfully suited to man if, in health and disease, you administer them appropriately and in accordance with individual constitutions.” Its similarity in appearance to blood led to its being prescribed for a variety of conditions including nosebleeds, menstrual disorders and—in an interesting twist—cardio-pulmonary problems.
Wine was also an important dietary supplement for athletes. In addition to being prescribed by Hippocrates for relieving muscle aches—specifically, one writer claims, “getting drunk once or twice to ‘cure the sore muscles’”—wine was an essential ingredient in a muscle-building diet. Most famously, Milo of Croton—the wrestling champion in six 6th-century BCE Olympiads—reportedly consumed twenty pounds of meat, nine pounds of bread and over two gallons of wine each day (eventually dying from a lion attack, rather than exploding like Mister Creosote). With this not-so-Spartan diet, it’s no wonder Hippocrates also warned that athletes might suffer from diarrhea.
While getting “tore up”—or merely having a wee nip—isn’t a typical part of the athletic regimen, Milo of Croton isn’t the only oenophilic link to the Olympics. Spyridon Louis, winner of the marathon in the 1896 Olympics, is said to have stopped for a glass of wine (or Cognac) while behind in the race, and then was fueled to victory by his tipple. In reality, the leaders had dropped out with cramps before finishing, but I prefer the image of Louis slurping his vino and then, like Popeye after eating spinach, his miraculously muscular legs sent him zooming in a dust cloud over the finish line.
I Will Take the Land, and I Will Drink the Wine
The French, seeing such a valid link between booze and strenuous athletics, have sensibly created several opportunities for personal achievement. The most famous, the Marathon du Médoc, combines—in their words—“wine (specifically, Bordeaux), sports, fun and health.” A British writer gives a clearer picture of the event:
This sounds like the most idiotic race known to man. The course is 26.2 miles through scenic vineyards and the participants—in compulsory fancy dress—are expected to indulge in 23 glasses of the famed vintages en route, while also stuffing themselves with local specialities such as oysters, foie gras, cheese, steak and ice-cream. Brilliant.
I hope we can apply this deeply Hippocratic understanding of athletics and medicine to all strenuous physical training, including becoming an astronaut:
Image: Spryidon Louis completing the 1896 Olympic marathon (Source).