In A Nutshell
We know strychnine as a poison, but in the right dose, it can act as a stimulant, too. It was so popular in the Victorian era that athletes would dope up using strychnine or coca leaves before events. The first US Olympics had their marathon won by a man who made it across the finish line driven by brandy, strychnine, and egg whites (and another who was just driven), and it was also common practice in a strange sport called “the wobbles.”
The Whole Bushel
Today, we all know that strychnine is a poison. It’s an incredibly complex plant-synthesized compound, and it causes violent convulsions. In a final, horrifying touch that makes it the perfect poison for murder mysteries, the victim often dies with tight facial muscles and a terrifying smile. It’s not even commonly used in rat poisons anymore because it’s such an awful way to die.
In Victorian America and Britain, though, it had a very different use. You’ve probably read about all the vintage medicine that used strychnine as an ingredient, and if you’ve ever wondered why that seemed like a good idea, the reason’s a strange one.
Doping in sports isn’t new, and at the turn of the 20th century, athletes were doing it with strychnine. This was considered perfectly acceptable.
Strychnine injections were commonplace, used as medicines to cure the aches and pains that go along with extreme athletic ability. It was only around 1917 that scientists studying the impact of the “tonic” realized that it was helping people function at a higher level than they would usually be capable of.
Until then, athletes were using it rather like we use coffee—it’s a pick-me-up that some of us can’t get through the day without. They have some important things in common, too. Both strychnine and caffeine bind to neurotransmitters, changing the speed at which they fire. In low doses, the poison does much the same as caffeine does, but in higher doses, it causes neurotransmitters to fire so rapidly that it quickly turns into restlessness and the trademark convulsions.
The first recorded instance of using an injection of strychnine purely as a performance enhancer came in the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. The marathon was just as bizarre as the rest of the events, but one of the favorites to win was an American named Thomas Hicks. Denied water (Olympic overseers also thought this was a great time to study the effects of dehydration on athletes), he was given a dose of strychnine and egg whites about 11 kilometers (7 mi) before the end of the race. (They also had brandy, but they were saving that for emergencies.)
After the first person to cross the finish line was disqualified (he’d ridden part of the way in a car), Hicks finished the marathon, fueled with more strychnine and egg whites, this time washed down with some of the brandy. He started suffering from hallucinations, his skin turned grey, and he finished the race carried by the trainers that had doped him. They carried him across the finish line (pictured above), but it counted. He was upright, and his feet were moving back and forth.
Chewing coca leaves was also pretty popular among athletes, for obvious stimulant reasons, and it was a favorite in one of the strangest of strange Victorian sports—the wobbles. Also called go-as-you-please races, they were slightly more hard-core than they sound. Walkers would cover hundreds and hundreds of miles over the course of a race that might last a handful of days, and participants could suffer from injuries from the run-of-the-mill bleeding feet to tension throughout their legs and thighs, which would then be sliced open to relieve the pressure.
These athletes in particular were known for chewing coca leaves as they walked, and we can’t say that we entirely blame them.
Show Me The Proof
Featured photo via Wikipedia
The Guardian: Sports doping, Victorian style
io9.com: Rat poison strychnine was an early performance-enhancing drug
Royal Society of Chemistry: Strychnine
Smithsonian: The 1904 Olympic Marathon May Have Been the Strangest Ever