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The sporting body & the science of nutrition

So long as there have been Olympic Games those involved have recognised the connection between diet and athletic performance. In the Classical world it was understood that physical, mental and spiritual health were interlinked, so diet played an important part in the training regimes of athletes. Sportsmen competing during the ancient games were advised by Hippocrates to “get drunk once or twice” if they were suffering from sore muscles; and dried figs, soft cheese, wheat, and meat were felt to enhance performance, while cold water, wine and desserts were understood to limit performance and so were prohibited (Applegate & Grivetti 1997a). However, although the connection between diet and sporting performance was recognized from an early time, it was not until the development of nutritional science in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that there was an understanding of the roles different nutrients played in shaping the body and its performance (Drummond, 1957).

Given the centrality of diet for the contemporary athlete, the relative newness of nutritional science is surprising. Sports nutrition, a subset of nutritional science, is the study and application of nutrition and diet in relation to athletic performance. Sports nutrition attempts to enhance the performance of athletes, relative to the sport, physique and gender, by understanding the role and balance of different fluids and foods in the diet. At the time of the Olympian revival in 1886, nutritional science was still embryonic and understanding about the role of food in determining health and fitness was limited (Carpenter 2003 a & b). Little was understood about the role of vitamins and minerals in maintaining a healthy diet and malnutrition in the general population was tackled as a problem of quantity (too little food) rather than one of quantity and quality (food of poor nutritional value or an unbalanced diet) (Drummond, 1957). Ideas about diet and health tended to be culturally specific and determined, in large part, by the availability and abundance of particular foods and drinks. Even as late as the 1948 Olympics, swimmer Don Bland claimed there was “no dietary advice about vitamins or proteins… nor any mention of fluid intake. My special race mix was three or four glasses of water, each with six teaspoons of sugar” (Hampton, 2008).

It was not until the 1930s and 1940s that scientists started to make links between diet and athletic performance in relation to proteins and carbohydrates. In the 1930s Scandinavian scientists started to investigate the role of carbohydrates in endurance performance but it was not until the 1960s that further research carried out in Sweden established carbohydrates as necessary for improved performance. (Applegate & Grivetti 1997b). This research led to the development of a sports drink invented by researchers at Florida University seeking to improve the performance of the university football team the ‘Gators’. Eventually sold under the brand name ‘Gatorade’, this glucose and sucrose based drink was the first in what is now a multi-million pound athletics drinks industry which connects the aspirations and desires of ordinary consumers and non-elite athletes with the performances of professional athletes through dietary association.

The quest to improve physical performance through diet therefore raises issues of health, ethics and sportsmanship. Controversies relating to athletes’ diets and health have been highlighted by the prevalence of performance enhancing aids, particularly anabolic steroids. Artificial stimulants have long been a feature of athletic performance (Rosen, 2008). Thomas Hicks won the 1904 Olympic marathon with the help of brandy, raw eggs and doses of strychnine, a dangerous stimulant. And while drugs were not widely used in the Games of the 1950s and 1960s, it was ‘common knowledge’ at the 1956 Games that US track and field athletes were experimenting with testosterone (Pound, 2004). The discovery of anabolic steroids in the early 1930s led to their widespread use for athletes, with disastrous consequences for their long-term mental and physical well being. The IOC began to raise concerns after 1960 and began testing for the sake of the athletes’ health. After scandals in the 1980s and 1990s, the IOC drew up a more focused Anti-Doping Code. Recent work by social scientists has historically situated the use of stimulants in sports and has pointed out how the moral, legal and ethical boundaries regarding drug use are culturally and historically situated (Dimeo, 2007)

Another area relating to athletic diet and health which has interested social science researchers relates to the prevalence of eating disorders among athletes. Such behaviours are not evenly distributed in terms of either nationality or discipline and research suggests that a range of factors including cultural values, the elite sports environment and individual predisposition combine to increase the risk of eating disorders (see Hulley et al, 2007). Researchers have raised questions about the gendered nature of eating disorders among athletes and the relationship between notions of masculinity and diet and nutrition in sports cultures (Atkinson, 2011; Sansone & Sawyer, 2005).

The connection between diet, performance and health at the Olympics concerns not only the bodies of the elite athletic few, but is bound up with challenges facing the body of the nation. The British Journal of Sports Medicine recently noted that only 26% of British adults take the recommended amount of exercise, and concerns about increasing population obesity are regular news items. The 2012 Olympics has been heralded as an opportunity to encourage participation in sport and so improve the health of the nation, but the sponsorship of the Games by branded fast food producers has raised concerns about the effectiveness of messages about healthy diet, exercise and the relation between the two.

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