This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.
Before designer steroids and hormone treatments tempted and disgraced elite athletes, there was a much simpler performance-enhancing drug: beer.
The first Olympian ever disqualified for doping was a Swede, Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall, who had two beers before a pistol marksmanship competition at the 1968 summer games in Mexico City.
He was participating in the pentathlon, which is a long, strange event that involves horseback riding, swimming, fencing and cross-country running, as well as shooting.
“The point of this is that it’s supposed to simulate a 19th-century cavalry soldier being trapped behind enemy lines,’’ said Bjorn Sandahl, chief administrator at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences and a sport historian. “So you must ride a horse, you must fight enemies with pistol and sword, swim, and then run to return to your own soldiers,” he said.
Drinking used to be a pretty normal tradition before shooting events. Sandahl said team leaders would dole out two beers to their competitors as a kind of tradition.
“There are several cases of alcohol during shooting events recorded,” Sandahl said. “Before that, I know of a situation in 1963 when an Austrian shooter almost killed a bystander with a shotgun.”
That particular event led to calls for stricter regulations, but alcohol and shooting made a sensible couple at the time.
“Well, there is a Swedish saying that alcohol strengthens the hand, it was said that it was a way to soothe the nerves,’’ Sandahl said.
At the time, the rules actually did allow for some alcohol, though well below what would be considered the legal limit for driving in the United States. When Liljenwall was tested after his competition, he had somehow gone over the limit.
“There was an argument later that since he was one of the first to go [get] tested, his level was higher due to that,’’ Sandahl said. “The other was that the Mexican beer was stronger than what they were used to in Sweden.’’
Liljenwall always maintained that he had only two beers, like everyone else. Still, the entire Swedish pentathlon team was disqualified, and had to relinquish their bronze medals.
One shooter getting a bit more of a buzz than the other competitors didn’t seem fair to officials at the time.
These days, there’s no alcohol allowed at such events for obvious safety reasons — but also because the unfair advantage is real.
Steady those hands
“People who do surgery a lot, uh, microsurgery in particular, as I did, know that you’ve got a natural tremor when you’re under a microscope,” said Olivier Rabin, science director of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
He used to study the vasculature of the brain and worked under a microscope catheterizing tiny blood vessels in animals.
“I mean, you can see that when you take forceps, for example, it’s very well known by many surgeons that you can see the little movements. This is a physiological movement. This is natural due to the contraction of the muscles in your hands.”
Low-dose alcohol gets rid of those tremors somehow.
“I’m not sure the mechanism is completely known because it, alcohol, acts, as you can imagine, on the central nervous system level, and there is a control nucleus in the brain controlling tremors, and apparently alcohol would act directly or indirectly on these, on [this] nucleus, the very nucleus to control the tremors.”
Olivier actually approached shooting organizations and asked, ‘Hey, do you want us to do a study on alcohol and shooting and see if it improves performance or not?’
“But in the end, they thought it was, they were very convinced that it could be an issue in their sport, and they didn’t find it very useful to conduct such a thorough study.”
Basically, the advantage was so obvious to professional shooters that they thought the study would be a waste of time.
The World Anti-Doping Agency actually took alcohol off its prohibited list a couple years back, but it was for bureaucratic reasons: so that competitors could be tested before contests instead of after – which makes sense if you’re giving someone a loaded rifle or a bow and arrow.
From crack shot to cracking puzzles
Marksmanship professionals agree alcohol can give you an edge on the shooting range, but there’s another arena in which alcohol can boost performance. Things that involve a type of cognition that requires quick and creative thinking become easier with just a little bit of alcohol.
Andrew Jarosz is a cognition researcher who studies creative or insightful problem-solving. He’s a psychologist at Mississippi State University.
“I’m sure you’ve experienced something like this, at some point: Someone tells you a riddle, and they’re mean, and they don’t tell you the answer, and you beat your head against it for, you know, hours or sometimes days,’’ he said. “And then, two days later, you’re mowing your lawn, and all of a sudden, the answer pops into your head out of nowhere.”
That’s because there’s no good step-by-step process to solving a riddle — the answer just kind of comes to you.
Jarosz and his team wanted to see whether alcohol could make someone better at this. They used something called a remote associates test.
“That’s a very common test of creative problem-solving. And so in that, we give you three different words and you have to find a fourth word that forms a phrase with each of those three words. So if I give you the words duck, dollar and fold, your job is to find a word that fits with all three of those. So the answer in this case would be bill duck, bill dollar, bill billfold.”
They lined up their test subjects in the lab: One group stayed sober; the other got vodka cranberries. When everyone was just about at the legal limit for driving, close to .08% blood alcohol concentration, they started taking these tests.
The folks that had a bit of a buzz going scored substantially higher than their sober counterparts. But that’s not even the most interesting part.
“Not only were they solving more of these problems, they were solving them faster,” Jarosz said.
The answers were just coming to them, and not after going through a whole bunch of steps trying to think of every single word that goes with “duck” in two days as they were mowing the lawn. Not after some serious head-scratching, but effortlessly.
Jarosz said there’s essentially two ways you can solve these remote associates test questions.
“You could go through each word and you could really just try to generate as many words as you can think of for every single word in the problem, until finally you find the one that matches all three,” he said. “Or … some people will just say, ‘The answer just popped into my head.’”
In the study, the buzzed participants said exactly that: that answers just popped into their heads.
Jarosz thinks what was going on is that the alcohol was affecting the working memory.
“If you’re trying to write down a phone number while someone’s talking to you, you’re trying to focus on writing the number. You’re remembering the numbers that they’re saying, and then they keep talking about other things as they keep going. Your ability to continue to hold on to those numbers, you need to remember while other things are happening, that’s working memory.”
Top-tier working memory is when you see someone in the United Nations translating a diplomat’s Japanese to English in real time.
Alcohol disrupts working memory by disrupting attention capacity — it’s hard to focus on multiple things when you’re a bit drunk. It also makes it hard to get stuck on things like trying to figure out all the possible words that could go with the word duck.
The mind wanders in a disordered way. And it turns out, it wanders right up to the creative solution that the creative problem demanded.
“I know there’s a saying, ‘Write drunk, edit sober,’ it’s usually attributed to Hemingway. I don’t think he actually said it, but you know, that kind of idea, of getting to the ideas and then coming back after the fact and formulating them when you are able to focus a little bit more, makes sense to me.”
Of course, there are limits to this: You get too drunk and creative and traditional problem-solving gets worse. And there are other studies that measure different kinds of creativity that show alcohol diminishing ability.
But if you’re on the second act of your play, or you can’t figure out how to end a story on performance-enhancing booze, maybe crack a cold one.