Defying the Odds? Superstar Smokers from Sports


The Winter Olympics in Sochi has begun and will be watched by millions of sports fans worldwide who will marvel at the athletes’ fitness, skill and mental stamina as they strive to win gold for their countries. Each competitor has their own tailor-made training regime complete with specific dietary requirements to ensure their body remains in peak fitness. Olympic athletes obviously don’t smoke; right? Actually, some of them do.

Cyclist Bradley Wiggins is not only the holder of four Olympic gold medals; he won the Tour de France in 2012. He’s also an occasional smoker. Professional sportsmen have also been known to indulge in the tobacco habit. Premiership footballers Wayne Rooney, Ashley Cole and Zinedine Zidane are smokers as is the Australian cricket star, Shane Warne. Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball star ever enjoyed cigars on a regular basis.

German tennis star, Karsten Braasch was a smoker and even had a pack of Marlboro reds positioned within reach on his courtside chair during matches. Former British number one, Tim Henman enjoyed a crafty drag or two and confirmed smoker Anna Kournikova once told an interviewer that her smoking, “… has nothing to do with my tennis.”

The 2012 London Olympics contained designated smoking areas to accommodate those athletes who need the weed. Double gold medalist, eventer Mark Todd, was seen chain-smoking whilst watching his nearest rival completing their showjumping round.

So, how come professional athletes can smoke seemingly without any adverse effect on their performance? Dr Michael Ussher, lecturer at St George’s Hospital Medical School explains; athletes who are well-exercised and physically very fit are able to remove carbon monoxide and nicotine from their systems more quickly than us mere mortals. Although carbon monoxide does reduce your capacity for exercise, an odd cigarette a few hours beforehand will make little if any difference.

However, Professor Stephen Spiro of the British Lung Foundation thinks differently. Even if you are an athlete with an above average lung function, any impairment on your lung capacity will affect performance and could mean the difference between gold and bronze in the medal stakes.

In the past before it was common knowledge that smoking was bad for your health, cigarettes were widely acceptable in athletics. Tennis pro, Bill Tilden even advertised Lucky Strike during the 1920s, claiming that fags actually “protected his throat”! Jo DiMaggio promoted Chesterfield and Arnold Palmer smoked L&Ms on the fairways between golf strokes.

In a scenario which nowadays is straight out of a comedy sitcom script, one of Roger Bannister’s compatriots was Eric Mackay who could not manage the full nine laps of a three mile race without a fag. He would always have a chum standing by with a ciggie ready so that he could have a quick drag before taking the bell!

Even more outrageously in 1932 Tom Hampson, winner of the 800 metres gold at the LA Olympics, began his race day morning preparation with a fry-up, a cup of tea (with two sugars) and a cigarette. His winning time of 1:49:7 was just nine seconds slower than the 2012 world record set by David Rudisha. This is even more remarkable given the huge advantages of modern running shoes, clothing, track conditions, diet, training program, medical and physio support etc enjoyed by athletes today.

As to whether Mr Hampson could have shaved a couple of seconds off his time if he’d foregone his early morning cigarette. Clearly, we’ll never know.


*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.

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