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Alcohol and the Athlete


Alcohol and the AthleteIf you are an athlete, you must not drink. Not ever. Sports and hooch do not mix.

So says popular tradition. We’re not talking about sports fans, mind you. Drunkenness and fandom go together like Playmates and lingerie. It is the actual athletes and intoxication that are supposedly a bad match.

This idea is more or less totally untrue. It is a “tradition” with a lineage less than thirty years old. Even today, it is largely kept alive by the lip service given it by sports pundits and health gurus peddling the diet du jour. The truth of the matter is that athletes have been drinking alcohol before, during, and after competition pretty much since the earliest days of organized sport. That it is looked at with derision today is yet another symptom of America’s growing hostility toward all things drunken.

Take, for example, the Olympic Games. The Games are held to be the paragon of selfless and noble sporting achievement; the acme of traditional values; world-community-building through wind sprints. The original Grecian Olympics, some 2,500 years ago, held themselves to all of these same high standards yet somehow managed to make wine an integral part of the event. The three primary competitions in the early Games were running, boxing and wrestling. Participants fueled their competitive fires with bowls of wine. Winners were honored with—in addition to the olive victory wreath—helpings of an extra-delicious wine, the Mendalian Red. It’s not at all far-fetched to suppose that many, if not all of these athletes did their thing while half in the bag. And I say bully for them.

As the centuries passed athletes of all stripes continued to fortify themselves with ardent waters, utilizing alcohol’s well-known chutzpah-enhancing qualities. Roman gladiators were bears for the booze. Russian equestrians carried vodka on cross-country races. Medieval participants in the martial sports (jousting, etc.) flew in the face of Church doctrine and partook of mead to make their lances a little lighter and their opponent’s lances a little less painful. Renaissance fencing masters touted the relaxing, limb-loosening effects of liquor. In short, the sportsman and his hip flask were never too far separated.

But who cares about all those old guys, right? They lived, like, ages ago, and our athletes today are way superior and would kick their ancient asses all up and down the track. Athletes today are vastly better than any who have ever lived before. Right? Sure, maybe. And “maybe” leaves a lot of wiggle room. But no matter. We’re not here to compare athletic achievement, we’re here to compare drunken achievement, and in that regard our contemporaries and our ancestors, you may be surprised to learn, are equals.

The 20th century is rife with stories of juiced jocks and gimlet-eyed tournamentours. Most British football (soccer, for you Americentric types) and rugby sides were assembled from the house teams of local breweries and distilleries. Even storied Manchester United didn’t get rolling until J.H. Davies, chairman of the Manchester Breweries, bought the financially troubled squad and made it an appendage of the brewery in 1902. In those days footballers drank whiskey and ale with the consent, even advice, of medical professionals. Early English team sports were an excellent marriage of booze and competition.

In Africa, along the shores of Lake Victoria, members of the Sukuma people, known as superb runners, keep pombe in intricately woven, watertight baskets. Pombe is a millet beer, and is used by the tribe to make their exertions more facile, not to mention more enjoyable. It has the consistency of porridge and is less intoxicating than a Coors Light, but hey, ports in storms, baby, ports in storms.
And how about in the good ol’ US of A? Do we have any drunkards in our national sporting closet? Oh, yeah. Oodles of them.
Babe Ruth, for one. He was a first-class rummy—built like a keg and twice as hard. The Bambino, still considered by many to be the best to ever have stepped onto a baseball field, drank like five backsliding Baptists. If his teammates are to be believed, he was capable of draining a bathtub full of beer and two bottles of rye in a single sitting.

In that so-called “golden age” of American sports, guys like Babe paid zero attention to the shrieking demands of prohibitionist doomsayers. They were too busy living large to waste time fretting over someone else’s concept of imminent detriment.

Okay, fine, you may be thinking, but you’re still talking about stuff that happened a long time ago. We’ve come a long way since the Babe ate whiskey-soaked baseballs for breakfast. Guys today don’t go for that sort of thing. Guys today treat their bodies as temples and liquor is an abomination before the altar of the almighty biceps. Right?

Hey, it must be true. It’s what you were taught in school ever since you were a wee sprout. Athletes today do not sully the grand sporting tradition.

Hah! Again I say, hah! The moralists have been just as successful with removing booze from sports as they were getting it out of Chicago during Prohibition. In both cases the hooch is still pouring, they just learned to hide it better.

Let’s examine some football greats. Mark Gastineau, former defensive lineman for the New York Jets held the single-season sack record until Brett Favre handed it to Michael Strahan. His on-field antics are legendary—he swaggered, he bullied, he waved his helmet in the air as a symbol of the head he just tore off the opposing quarterback. Gastineau was a remorseless drinker and a total bad ass, and presumably still is.

Then there is Art Donavan, a lineman for the Colts in their glory days before Peyton Manning arrived and turned into Chokezilla. Donavan once said, via-a-vis players’ salaries, that he’d been perfectly happy to play for enough money to buy a kielbasa and a case of Blatz. Art played without a facemask. His nose looks like a syphilitic cauliflower. And he was content to play for beer money.

Ever heard of Lawrence Taylor, the linebacker for the New York Giants who helped them win two Super Bowls? Never in the history of the gridiron was a man harder, rougher, more tenacious or, no disrespect here, more unforgiving than Taylor. If you took a shot from L.T., you needed a shot. You needed the whole bottle. Your teeth hurt. Your whole family’s teeth hurt.

And it’s a documented fact that Taylor partied like a Prince song. Do a shot for L.T. tonight, and make it a fuzzy nipple in honor of the hookers he used to send to his opponents’ hotel rooms before big games to make sure they were exhausted from being up all night.

Then there’s baseball. Specifically, there is David Wells, a pitcher for, among several others, the New York Yankees. He shares Babe Ruth’s body asthetic and drinking habits, and his arm is a cannon. Wells has the distinction of pitching a very rare no-hitter. The night before that historic day, Wells partied until dawn at a Saturday Night Live cast party and arrived at the clubhouse so hungover he could barely focus his eyes. He took the mound without a whimper and proceeded to smoke the Minnesota Twins like a country ham. Wells appears to have little or no respect for the “honorable spirit” of the game, and his no-hitter is proof that “tradition” means exactly jack shit when the game is on the line. It is also proof that—gasp!—even a full-bore drunkard can reach the highest peak of sporting perfection.

There’s one other guy I want to talk about, as he is without a doubt the all-time champion of drinking athletes. His name was Andre Rousimoff, but he was known to millions worldwide as the professional wrestler Andre the Giant. Standing at seven-foot-four and weighing in at 520 lbs, Andre was essentially a bipedal garbage truck. Many of his fellow wrestlers are and were serious drinkers (Scott Hall, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, etc.) but none could compare to Andre. His appetites were of mythic proportion.

Hulk Hogan has reported that Andre drank a case of tall boys each day on the tour bus. At the end of each can Andre would belch, crush the can in his dinner-platter-sized paw and bounce the empty off the back of Hogan’s head. It paid to be on Andre’s good side. While touring Japan (where Andre was a mega-celebrity and a household name) one of his Japanese sponsors rewarded the Giant with a case of expensive plum wine. Andre took his usual seat at the back of the bus, where seats had been removed to accommodate his bulk, and started in on the wine with his usual gusto for things fermented. Four hours later Andre had polished off the last bottle in the case. Sixteen bottles of wine in four hours. That feat alone earns him a place on Bacchus’s right shoulder, but it gets even better. Still reeling from the effects of fermented plums, Andre proceeded straight to the ring where he wrestled three matches (including a battle royal) and no one had the slightest clue that they were in the presence of a walking wine vat.

Hey! Hold on a second. Wrestling? “Professional” Wrestling? You mean like Macho Man Savage, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Mick Foley and all those guys? You’re including them on a list of athletes? You’re high, man. They aren’t athletes. The fix is always in, the outcome of the match is known before feet hit canvas. Ain’t no sports there, partner, just a bad joke.

Well, yes and no. Is it a sport in the sense that the results are unknown pending the resolution of some competition? Of course not. Anyone who thinks otherwise is either under the age of twelve or lives someplace where sisters and cousins are interchangeable.

On the other hand, these people are, without a doubt, athletes. Some are absolutely top-flight athletes. If you’ve ever witnessed the sheer power of a Brock Lesner or a Bill Goldberg, or the gymnastic abilities of Psychosis, Rey Mysterio or Jeff Hardy, then you’ve seen the truth of my words. Wrestling is silly, sometimes galactically so. It’s fake, after a fashion, but ask Mick Foley how fake it felt when his ear got torn off his skull during a match. Not chewed on a little as they sometimes like to do in boxing, but ripped off of his head. It’s also entertaining as hell, which is asking a lot from television these days. Wrestling, in my opinion, is one of the few occasions that sports entertainment bridges the gap between athletic skill and sublime hilarity. And as uptight as sports has become these days, it’s a welcome injection of fun.

So relax, crack open a chilly one (or some plum wine if you’re in the mood) and lose yourself in the Wallow of Silly. It does a body good.

Sports and booze. It seems obvious that they go together like hangovers and cold pizza. For every example above there are hundreds more. Professional sports are rough. Very rough. They are painful and sometimes even lethal. Pro athletes need hooch. I wish more would stand tall, hold their heads high, and shout into the stands:

Hey, Beer Man! Send me down a tall one and keep them coming!

I’m sure any number of the gathered faithful would love to back that tab. I mean, how often to you get to drink with your heroes?

Richard English

(Note: The author is indebted to the works of Tony Collins & Wray Vamplew, Lawrence Taylor, and Hollywood Hulk Hogan)

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