Aussie Booze Ban At Rio 2016 Raises Questions About Role Alcohol Plays in Elite Sport
Kitty Chiller, Australian Chef de Mission at Rio 2016, announced last week the Australian section of the Athletes Village will be a “dry area” for the duration of the Olympics.
Part of their freshly unveiled “Campaign Rio”, this has been taken as a statement of intent for a fight-back from recent sporting disappointment, but also as a further source of derision for Brits eager to pour salt on wounded Aussie pride.
After London 2012, there was widespread criticism of Australian athletes for “preferring leisure to sport,” wasting public funding, and distracting those teammates still competing by raucous post-event celebrations.
The swim team bore the brunt of the abuse, along with rower Josh Booth, whose post-race celebrations ended somewhat prematurely after being arrested for vandalizing several shop windows.
The basis of this criticism, of course, was that Australia did not do very well in London.
The team languished in tenth position on the medals table – well below Britain for the second successive Games – while their once-dominant swim team fared particularly badly in winning just a solitary gold medal.
This appears the key point when analyzing perception of elite sportsmen becoming elite drinkers – or sub-elite ones, as in Booth’s case. Downing one’s sorrows after, or sometimes during, a poor performance inevitably receives far greater criticism than drinking to celebrate a victory.
The performance of German discus thrower Robert Harting for example, who after winning the gold medal in London was forced to spend the night sleeping outside the Village after “misplacing” his accreditation mid-party, provoked mostly endearment.
Four years earlier in Beijing, there was a similar reaction to future Knight of the Realm Bradley Wiggins rolling over a car bonnet and escaping arrest only after offering a signed photograph to an irate taxi driver.
Neither did sports fans particularly mind when the England cricket team attended a reception with then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair after winning the Ashes in 2005 visibly worse for wear. Or when they were caught celebrating again, on the pitch this time, after a similar victory this summer.
Yet in 2011 when the England rugby World Cup campaign ended in disappointment after bouts of dwarf throwing, ferry jumping and other alcohol instigated antics, there was consternation.
There are other criteria that color reactions to drinking.
What is actually done under the influence is one factor. This certainly came back to haunt Booth and is a reason, in Britain at least, why inebriated footballers tend to receive more criticism than drinkers from other sports.
What they do the following morning is another factor. This was illustrated last week when England squad member Gareth Hock was sent home in disgrace from the rugby league World Cup before a ball had been thrown. Hock was one of several members of the team to sample the local nightlife but, unlike the others, he overslept and missed training the following day. It was, therefore, only he who received the severest of punishments.
Yet broader points can be made regarding the evolving influence of alcohol which correlates with the tide of professionalism flooding elite sport in recent decades.
In times long past, alcohol played a large and arguably vital role in the life of an athlete.
In 1896, legend has it the winner of the inaugural Olympic marathon Spyridon Louis, stopped for a glass of cognac midway through his 26 mile test, and that this provided the necessary boost for his strong finish.
In the book Foinavon, written by my colleague at insidethegames David Owen, we learn of the use of alcohol, alongside Turkish baths, as a vital ingredient of the dreaded weight loss process undergone by jockeys in the 1960s.
One such jockey would arrive at the baths armed with champagne and a quart of brandy.
“The champagne helped me sweat [and thus lose weight] and the brandy was for my masseur,” it was explained.
In the same period, we had figures such as George Best whose greatness was defined by excess on and off the pitch.
With sport defined by the macho, the alpha male, performance at the bar matched up in importance to performance on the pitch. Rugby and cricket are good examples of this – no doubt predominantly due to their popularity in both Britain and Australia.
In rugby you had scarcely believable feats of alcohol-fueled “initiation ceremonies” and “tour-courts” at levels ranging from school to, especially, international level. In cricket meanwhile, figures like David Boon, the Australian batsman-turned-umpire who, legend has it, drank 52 cans of lager on a single flight to London in 1989 to register his first half-century of the Ashes tour.
Yet these times are changing and, if they are not completely past, they are certainly passing.
Earlier this year, I found myself sitting with a former rugby player from Gloucester who was holding forth, as ex-players tend to do, about his various exploits on and off the pitch.
When I asked whether players could behave like that now he replied: “Nah not really, there’s little point spending the week training hard, doing fitness work and eating and drinking the right things if you’re going to fill yourself with poison afterwards,” before heading off rather wistfully to the bar to refill his glass.
He was right, though. Unlike the blissful naivety of days gone by, we now know that alcohol simply does not fit in with the elite sporting lifestyle. What’s more, the money that athletes now receive, particularly in sports like rugby but also in a National Lottery funded Olympic age, merits drinking less justifiable. England’s 2011 World Cup exploits and Australia’s London 2012 ones can be taken as the last straw.
Alcohol still remains common in elite sports sponsorship and advertising, at least in some parts of the world, but for how much longer, we cannot be sure.
Beyond the elite level, little has changed and little is likely to. A trip last week to my old university haunt for an “old boys” athletics weekend reflected this. The trip was meant to consist of a race against the current crop of runners followed by a dinner and, for want of a better term, night out.
A healthy balance of sport and celebration, it would appear.
However, flushed with opportunity to relive nostalgic memories and take advantage of prices that would barely buy you a sip in London, the night before the race swiftly escalated. The run the next day then became less a race and more a battle to survive, and to do so with everything consumed the night before still intact.
This is the difference between recreational and elite sport and behavior like this would quite rightly not be tolerated at elite level. If athletes ever competed successfully with a hangover in the past, the rising intensity and fitness levels would merit that impossible today.
With the bizarre exception of Russian high jumper Ivan Ukhov’s brandy-fueled effort in Athens in 2008, the thought of drinking during a competition is even more laughable.
Yet it would seem sad if drinking was lost from sport completely.
Like Harting and Wiggins, athletes do deserve to celebrate and even commiserate; it is worth remembering that, in the case of Olympians, they have probably not drunk a drop for months beforehand.
Without meaning to sound like a nagging parent, it is all about moderation. Sport can still involve drinking, but not with the levels of a Josh Booth or a David Boon. Drinking should be about camaraderie and relaxation rather than excess and stupidity.
This moderation is the general point that Kitty Chiller seemed to be making in enforcing the Rio ban and it may yet inspire Australia to the improvement they so desire in 2016.
But for the sake of nostalgia and entertainment, and from a British sporting perspective, we must hope that the ban is not enforced too strictly.