Olympic champions harnessing plant-based power


Paavo Nurmi, Edwin Moses, Carl Lewis and now—Lizzie Armistead

Lizzie Armistead proudly shows off her Olympic silver medal, Great Britain’s first medal of the London 2012 Summer Games.

As reported earlier this year, the current welterweight champion of the world (Timothy Bradley) is a vegan as is ten-time all-pro tight end of the Atlanta Falcons, Tony Gonzalez.

And over the years, there have been Olympic superstars who harnessed the power of plant-based nutrition to capture Olympic medals. The latest is Lizzie Armistead, who this week won Great Britain’s first medal of these London games—winning a silver medal in a gruelling 87-mile bicycle race.

Like many other Olympic champions of the past, Lizzie was brought up as vegetarian from birth and has been a long distance runner for most of her adult life. And she has been dealing with the typical reactions to vegetarians for a long time. As reported this week in The Guardian (see link below), Lizzie says:

One of the most common misconceptions I’ve come across is that vegetarians are pallid, gentle creatures who would recoil in a tough sporting arena. Despite the fact I was breaking school records on the track, people still questioned my diet’s ability to make me strong.

I spent six months last year living and training with some of Kenya’s greatest long-distance runners, for my book, Running With the Kenyans. The athletes (from the Rift Valley) were not strictly vegetarian, but ate very little meat, which is usually reserved for special occasions such as weddings or funerals. Although there were occasional non-vegetarian meals served in the athlete training camps, we lived mostly on a diet of rice, beans, ugali (a dough made of maize flour and water) and green vegetables. The list of gold medals the Kenyan athletes have won on the track is almost endless. (On a personal note, I returned home to run a marathon in under three hours.)

Paavo Nurmi, the Flying Finn, winner of twelve Olympic medals

Although similar versions of her “vegetarian athlete” story have been around for almost 100 years, the nutritional experts on both sides of the pond still have trouble accepting it.  Despite the fact that a simple whole foods, plant-based diet has been proven to easily reverse heart disease and type 2 diabetes, the experts simply have trouble accepting the fact that the natural diet for humans is 100% plant-based. A British expert weighs in:

Most nutritionists are still unconvinced of the benefits of a vegetarian diet for elite sportspeople. While it can mean a diet low in saturated fat, which is good, it requires athletes to be more vigilant about their intake of protein, iron and vitamin B12. “It is hard work,” says Linia Patel, a sports nutritionist at the British Dietetic Society. “It can be done, of course, but I take my hat off to those who do it.”

Guess we’re going to need another hundred years before our experts learn the truth about nutrition. Maybe Miss Patel should do her homework and learn about the great champions of the past who won plant-fueled Olympic Gold medals. And that was before the day when people started needed nutritionists to tell them what they should be eating.

Edwin Moses. Twice the Olympic 400m hurdles gold medallist, Moses went on one of the most incredible winning streaks in the history of sport when he won 122 successive races between 1977 and 1987, breaking four world records along the way.

I wonder if Miss Patel has ever heard of Paavo Nurmi, the great Flying Finn. He was born in 1897 and turned vegetarian in 1909 (103 years ago). Then, in 1920, he began winning the first of his twelve Olympic medals. From Wikipedia:

Nurmi won a total of nine gold and three silver medals in the 12 events in which he competed at the Olympic Games from 1920 to 1928. In particular, he won five gold medals at the 1924 Summer Olympics held in Paris, which is still the mostathletics gold medals at one Olympics in the history of the Games.

Nurmi was a vegetarian from the age of 12. He had a brief marriage with Sylvi Laaksonen, from 1932 to 1935. Their son Matti was a Finnish national-level middle-distance runner in the 1950s.

A modest man of few words. During his competitive running career, which lasted from about 1919 to 1934, Nurmi earned a reputation for speaking very little off the track, earning him the nickname “Great Silent One” (Suuri vaikenija) from some contemporary Finns. An illustration of this was his two-word reply to a congratulatory speech during his 1925 tour of the United States which consisted of simply “Thank you!”

Martina Navratilova. Although she lost in the quarter finals in her only Olympic appearance in Athens in 2004, Navratilova is one of the greatest tennis players in history, winning 18 Grand Slams, including an incredible nine Wimbledon titles. She is a strong advocate of vegetarianism.

The Guardian article continues, As Armitstead has shown yet again, vegetarians continue to rise to the very top of their sports. She follows a long line of Olympians who have managed to excel without “eating corpses”, as she herself puts it.

For your convenience, here is the source article along with four of my previous blogs on athletic performance.

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About J. Morris Hicks

A former strategic management consultant and senior corporate executive with Ralph Lauren in New York, J. Morris Hicks has always focused on the "big picture" when analyzing any issue. In 2002, after becoming curious about our "optimal diet," he began a study of what we eat from a global perspective ---- discovering many startling issues and opportunities along the way. In addition to an MBA and a BS in Industrial Engineering, he holds a certificate in plant-based nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, where he has also been a member of the board of directors since 2012. Having concluded that our food choices hold the key to the sustainability of our civilization, he has made this his #1 priority---exploring all avenues for influencing humans everywhere to move back to the natural plant-based diet for our species.
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3 Responses to Olympic champions harnessing plant-based power

  1. Leo Tacke says:

    I was thinking of your blog when I read an article about Michael Phelps in our daily Sun Star in Cebu, Philippines yesterday. The article talks about his achievements but also explains what diet Michael is on and I quote: “Michael Phels has a “humongous” diet, feasting on upwards of 12,000 calories a day. – Breakfast: three fried egg sandwiches, three chocolate-chip pancakes, five egg omelets, three slices of sugary French toast, and a bowl of grits; – Lunch: heaping plate of pasta, enriched with vitamins and fiber, two large ham-and-cheese sandwiches with lots of mayo, washed down with gallons of energy drinks; – Evening meal: more pasta, along with pizza and more energy drinks. His diet is described as “dangerous for the average person,” but an elite athlete such as Phelps needs the amount of energy to train and compete at a high level. At Olympic level, Phelps will be burning all the calories straight off, says his trainer Johnny Dawes.”
    I hope for Michael that he will strongly cut calories and enjoy a more plant based diet now he has retired or he will become obese within 12 months.

  2. Linda201 says:

    I find it distressing that some of the athletes have been vocal about gorging themselves on McDonald’s “food” after winning medals. (The fact that McDonald’s is even a sponsor of the Olympics blows my mind.) When I hear about athletes eating so poorly, it makes me think about Jim Fixx, the famous distance runner who dropped dead of a heart attack at 52 (due to atherosclerosis) because he believed athletes could eat whatever they wanted as long as they exercised enough to keep the weight off.

  3. Denise S. says:

    When are the “nutritionists” going to catch up with what is happening in the world of nutritional knowledge? I’ll bet they are being taught in school the same old, incorrect information that I was taught in nursing school – which spent very little time teaching us about nutrition, and most of the time on heart disease and cancer. We need more Jeff Novicks (RD) please!

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