What Olympians Ate in Ancient Games
Team USA values nutrition for its athletes so much that it sent sports dietitians to Sochi even before the athletes arrived.
While sports nutrition may seem cutting edge, its roots can actually be traced back to the ancient Olympics.
In fact, evidence suggests that at the first Olympic games in 776 B.C., an altar was placed at the end of the only event of the Games: the Stadion, or 200-yard sprint. The victor would light the altar for a sacrifice, and the winner would get the best pieces of the meat.
"It shows the status reserved for Olympic victors," said Charles Stocking, assistant professor of classical studies at the University of Western Ontario.
"Athletes were kind of the rock stars (of the time)," agreed Francine Segan, a food historian and author of "The Philosopher's Kitchen." "They were the pride of their community, and physicians were very interested in supporting the athletes and what they ate."
While there are bits and pieces of evidence about what an athlete’s diet may have consisted of, Stocking said, it’s clear there was a major emphasis on nutrition -- and debate about it. In fact, athletes’ nutrition was considered so important that doctors and athletic trainers appear to have argued about best practices, Stocking said.
"It’s not all that different from today," he said.
Some evidence points to diets similar to current trends.
"They didn’t speak in terms of carbs, fat and proteins, but the way you translate it is a diet high in protein," Segan said. "They noticed by testing athletes what created the most energy, the leanest muscles and the most endurance."
Because meat was usually reserved for sacrifices to the gods, not part of the daily diet, introducing meat into an athlete’s diet was especially significant, Stocking said. There’s a story about a wrestler named Milo of Croton who was known for gaining his strength by lifting a calf every day until it was a full-grown bull. The story goes that he carried it around the Olympic stadium -- and then ate it.
"It’s probably not true, but it shows the value of meat," Stocking said. "For an athlete to eat a whole bull shows their level of power and status."
Other ancient writing shows that a low-carb, gluten-free diet may have been recommended.
"A lot of ancient writers wrote that for optimal physical performance, athletes should avoid grains and breads for six months before the Olympics," Segan said.
Fragments of other documents suggest that athletes may have consumed diets rich in fish, legumes, chickpeas, olives, some types of cheese and dried fruit -- what we would call a Mediterranean diet, she said.
Not everything has a modern-day equivalent. Ancient athletes appear to have believed that olive oil was "good for you inside and out," Segan said. At early Olympics, athletes "would coat their body in olive oil and compete nude. So only males and unmarried women were allowed to watch."
They also may have relied on wine more than water, since alcohol kills germs that could taint water.
"Hippocrates had a great recipe for athletes with sore muscles: Get drunk twice in the period of a day and have sex," Segan said. "I asked my own doctor what that was about, and he said, well, if you hurt your back I would prescribe a muscle relaxant -- alcohol and sex can also relax muscles."