In many ways the history of the Olympics is the history of athletes trying to kill themselves with increasingly sophisticated drugs. In the original Olympics the athletes used various herbal stimulants and psychotropic mushrooms to give themselves an edge. In the modern Olympics and competitive sport generally, almost as soon as a drug has come on the market, it has been (Ab)used in competitive sport. From cocaine to nitrous oxide, from amphetamines to beta agonists to erythropoietin, drugs have been taken up with verve despite limited evidence they actually improve performance and the occasional death.
Possibly the strangest performance enhancing drug was (is) Strychnine.
Aficionados of murder mysteries will immediately recognise Strychnine as a poison. Agatha Christie preferred arsenic to Strychnine it is true (and even arsenic has been used as a performance enhancing drug), but Strychnine is one of the top poisons in our consciousness.
Strychnine is an alkaloid found in many species of Strychnos plants, but in the west we mostly get it from Strychnos nux-vomica. Extracts of this plant are widely used as poison arrow/dart toxins. Strychnine is a tetanising poison. It causes convulsive muscle contractions that can tear muscle and snap tendons, and which ultimately stop breathing.
Strychnine does this by interfering with the inhibitory neurotransmitter system, which puts a brake on the stimulatory nerves. Without this moderating influence the excitatory signals to muscles can almost literally tear the body apart.
This would make Strychnine an unlikely performance enhancing drug but for Paracelsus’s dictum. Several traditional African medicines use Strychnos extracts that have been treated to lower the toxin content. Some of these are increase blood pressure. Low doses of Strychnine give people a subjective feeling of stimulation, although it’s not clear that Strychnine actually does increase performance.
While low doses of of Strychnine do increase swimming activity in lampreys and tadpoles, it’s hard to say if this will translate to sustained increases in performance needed to give elite athletes the edge.
Certainly strychnine consumption has been associated with adverse events, the first recorded sporting death in the modern era (Arthur Linton in 1896) was possibly due to Strychnine consumption. But then again, athletes of that time consumed cocktails of many drugs. These could contain combinations of caffeine, cocaine, alcohol, ether and strychnine.
Thus when Thomas Hill collapsed after completing the Olympic marathon in 1904, it is impossible to tell if it was the 2 milligrams of Strychnine his manager gave him during the race, or the copious amounts of brandy that he consumed that was responsible. Strychnine use was so common that athletes became habituated to the drug, and could tolerate doses that would kill ordinary people. Strychnine is one of the few illegal drugs with a minimum performance level (200 ng/mL).
Times change, endurance event organisers no-longer provide athletes with free drugs. Strychnine is now banned, although every so often people are caught using it. You might think that athletes would balk at consuming a poison, but in the drive for glory, commonsense often gets left in the dust.