02/18/2014 12:27 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2014

Dare to Be 100: Hippocrates and Olympics

The magnificence of the ancient Greek intellect deeded us with two of our civilization's central struts: democracy and science. It is startling to recognize the power of that tiny group of enlightened citizens whose insights still direct most of our current affairs.

The Olympic Games are yet another heritage of huge significance. Begun in 776 B.C., they continue as an emblem of the human potential. They were conducted in accord with the Hippocratic ideals: "If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health." Hippocrates prescribed the ideal training program which consisted of moderation in everything, The Golden Mean.

Food historian Francine Segan studied ancient texts (1) among which was Deipnosophists, from which she extracts the tale of the wrestler Milon of Croton, who won several competitions at the Olympics. She recounts the report that:

Milon used to eat 20 pounds of meat and much bread and then he drank three pitchers of wine. And at one Olympics he put a four-year old bull upon his shoulders and carried it around the stadium, after which he cut it up and ate it all alone in a single day.

Today such interesting reportage was updated by the widely-spread rumor that Olympic icon swimmer Michael Phelps sustained his training regimen by a diet of 12,000 calories per day. He personally refuted this myth. It is important to observe that such a surfeit of calories is impossible simply because the intestinal absorbing capacity is limited. It is curious to reflect that the most amazing feats are constrained not by muscle power or cardiac reserve but by how many calories that the gut can handle.

The most certified scientific data in this capacity derive from Tour de France riders, in which the competitors consumed 6,000 calories per day during the course of the competition. (2) The constituencies of the diets are all over the map. Hussein Bolt, the world's fastest human, is reported to train largely on bananas. That sounds like a lot of bananas to me. Maybe he has a banana plantation.

As we now enjoy the reportage from the Winter Olympic Games at Sochi, it is valuable to reflect that this event was conceived by the ancient Greeks to explore the limits of the human potential. They invested this ideal with divine connotations and respect.

Currently, as we seek our individual and collective potential, our personal citius, altius, fortius, our optimus, our efforts are guided by this valued relic, the ultimate reflection of Olympic heritage.


1) Segan F The Philosopher's Kitchen 2010 Random House, New York
2) /07/ le-tour-de-france-2008