10 Unbelievable Performance-Enhancing Substances

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Here are 10 historical performance enhancers that put the ‘dope’ in doping.

1. Strychnine
Better known as a deadly poison, strychnine was thought to be the ticket to success for Thomas Hicks, an American runner in the 1904 Olympic marathon, who mixed it with brandy and egg whites. He needed emergency medical treatment at the finish line and nearly died, but won the gold medal.

2. Asses’ hooves
The hooves of the Abyssinian ass were taken in powder form by ancient Egyptian athletes, who boiled them in oil and spiked them with rose hips to mask that funky ass-hoof flavor.

3. Sweet, sweet ether

Sugar cubes soaked in ether helped cyclists get through 144-hour races in the 1870s. When ether wasn’t enough, coaches added nitroglycerine and cocaine, with some peppermint for flavor.

4. Baking soda
Some modern-day swimmers and runners swear by “soda-doping,” which means ingesting baking soda to shave precious seconds off their times. By increasing blood pH, baking soda may reduce the acid produced by athletes’ muscles, allowing them to keep on trucking. Soda-doping also causes diarrhea, which could keep the competition out of the pool.

5. Ultraviolet radiation
In the 1930s, Russian scientists found that peppering athletes with UV rays improved their speed in the 100-meter dash. German researchers in the 1940s found similar improvement in cycling times after a spell under the sunlamp.

6. Guinea pig sperm
In the late 1800s, physiologist Charles Brown-Séquard injected himself with his liquide testiculaire, testifying that the extract of dog and guinea-pig testes made him stronger and had even “lengthened the arc of his urine.” While he likely overstated the effectiveness of his own distillation, his discovery was a predecessor of hormone-based performance-enhancers.

7. Pigeon potions
The sport of pigeon racing has been rocked by doping scandals: While some handlers resort to anabolic steroids, others use drugs that prevent molting to maximize a bird’s training season. Birds have also been doped with purgatives to encourage them to drop their payloads before racing, thereby reducing the birds’ weight.

8. Magic mushrooms
It wasn’t just berserkers who favored magic mushrooms to enhance performance: Olympians in the third century also counted on hallucinogenic ‘shrooms to speed them to the finish line.

9. Arsenic
In the regions of Styria and Tyrol, Austrian lumberjacks kept the axe swinging with megadoses of arsenic, which would have made a nifty addition to the Monty Python song. Styrians also took arsenic to pep them up before long mountain hikes and as a digestive aid.

10. Human hearts
The ancient Aztecs swore by ‘em to boost both military and athletic prowess.

Yesterday was October 10, 2010—10.10.10! To celebrate, we planned a bunch of 10 lists, and the mass listeria has spilled into 10.11.10. To see all the lists we've published so far, click here.


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October 11, 2010 - 9:59am
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