In the beginning, long before Lance Armstrong mainlined “Edgar” in the Alps and Barry Bonds morphed into a Hummer-sized version of himself—even before East German female hammer throwers loaded with anabolic steroids stood atop podiums like American Gladiators—athletes trusted in rat poison.
In the six-day bicycle races of the 1890s, “you’d have heroin, cocaine, strychnine, and sugar cubes soaked in ether,” says John Hoberman, chair of Germanic studies at the University of Texas, Austin and author of the book Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sport. “Heroin is a narcotic, so it’s possible they were using it for pain relief. Maybe they were using opium for pain relief. Strychnine is a stimulant—but it’s also rat poison, so you’d better not take too much of it.”
This week marked the introduction of “deer antler spray”—not a bearded indie rock group, but a substance made from actual deer antlers—into the sports lexicon. The substance, which is thought to stimulate muscle growth, has been linked to athletes ranging from linebacker Ray Lewis to golfer Vijay Singh. (Lewis denies he took it; Singh admits to using it, but claims that he didn’t realize that the stuff was filled with IGF-1, a banned substance.) The idea of injecting liquid animal byproduct under your tongue in order to hit longer tee shots may sound crazy—“The deer antler thing is careening into farce,” says Hoberman—but it’s hardly the most outlandish thing athletes have tried in their quest to boost performance.
Hoberman says that today’s performance-enhancing drug culture has its roots in the late 19th century, when scientists were interested in studying “human organism under stress” (“heating it up, freezing it down, studying heads of people who’d been guillotined to death in Paris,” he says). The research eventually expanded to include efforts to boost performance. “People participating in six-day cycling races weren’t doing it for their health, but for cash prizes,” says Hoberman. “They were groping for an edge.”
A century later, pro golfers in the 1990s flocked like locusts to golden-colored, copper rheumatic bracelets, little Tesla-esque devices that were intended to harness “positive and negative ions” and originally marketed as tools used to reduce muscle and joint pain. “It works like an anti-strain mechanism,” said golfer Nick Price at the time. At one point, more than 135 professionals on the PGA and LPGA wore a brand called “Q-Ray.” In 2002, the Mayo Clinic debunked the pain-relief assertions and the Federal Trade Commission charged the makers of Q-Ray with acting deceptively and making false claims.
More recently, baseball players have started sporting modern-day gorgets known as Phiten necklaces—braided cloth-and-titanium ropes that many claim boost circulation, help with balance, and somehow harness the body’s energy. “This whole field of energy medicine, it’s bogus,” said physician and columnist Harriet Hall in 2011. In 2000, the football world endured one of the most bizarre trends of all: mass pickle juice consumption. The sodium in pickle juice—which has also been used by Major League pitchers to harden the skin of their hands—became wildly popular after players on the Philadelphia Eagles consumed it to help them retain fluids. Players at all levels began guzzling it around the clock. Like all fads, it disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived.