Doc’s Talk 07-29-2012

Dr. Scaff shared interesting facts about the Olympics, and how today’s runners would have fared in the Olympics 100 years ago.

Even though the Olympics started in Greece and was based on the Greek mythology, really it was England who codified the Olympics, so they are the mother country of the Olympics.

This year, 2012, England broke with tradition and instead of having a single individual light the Olympic torch, they took a bunch of youths and ran them to light the torch, and in that, a whole new tradition has been started; there has not been anything like that since the modern Olympics started in 1896.

Here are a few interesting facts about the Olympics: 

In 2012, for the first time in Olympics history, the U.S. team is comprised of more women than men, which is good, and it also shows how far women have come over the ages.  For example, back before the days of birth control pills women could not control their menstrual cycles the way they can today, and it was not known if the menstrual cycle would affect women’s athletic performance.  If 8 healthy women, very few over the age of 30, were running, there were, at any given time, some in the pre-phase, the actual phase, or the after-phase of their menstrual cycle.  Research was conducted to see if the menstrual cycle affected women’s performance, and the results showed that that in spite of these cyclic changes, performance remained unchanged, and the menstrual cycle affected their performance in no measurable or observable way.  Today we know that running decreases pre-menstrual cramps, postmenopausal symptoms, and etc.

Why the marathon is 26 miles, 385 yards:  In 1908, the Olympics were held in London, and the Queen, Alexandria, wanted to watch the start of the marathon.  So the race started at Windsor Castle and then the athletes ran the course down into the Olympic stadium.  This was the first time a stadium had been built specifically for the Olympics (it is still there), so this new stadium was going to be trendsetting.  Everybody would sail on their boats from the Americas and Europe and elsewhere, to attend the Olympics, and the marathon was going to be exactly 26 miles long (up until 1908 the marathon was anywhere between 22 – 25 miles long as determined by the host country).  After starting the race, the race officials went over to look at the finish line and saw that the Queen’s viewing box was 385 yards to the right of the finish.  So as the runners were approaching the stadium, the race officials had all the stanchions and everything pulled down and moved so that the queen could watch finish.  Talk about a course change!

In 1908 the Olympics were marred by politics, …just as we have now.  There were 9 organizing countries, one of which was the U.S., and these countries were to have their flags displayed at the opening ceremonies.  But remember, even though England and the U.S. are today the best of friends, a great deal of rivalry between the two nations has colored our history.  After all, the U.S. originated as English colonies, until the colonies declared independence from England in 1776.  But people forget, there was another inconvenience:  In the U.S. Civil War from 1860 to 1865 the British supported the Rebels, the South, and the French supported the North …and the British lost again.  Only 4 decades had passed between that time and the 1908 Olympics and the English were still smarting from their losses in the Americas.

At the 1908 Olympics, the British organizers had failed to display the American flag during the opening ceremonies.  So at the time when the athletes of the participating countries entered the stadium, as the bearer of the U.S. flag, Ralph Rhodes, our 6 foot 6, 275 pound shot-putter, passed the Queen’s viewing stand, instead of dipping the flag to her as the other countries had done, he lifted the flag as high as he could and teammate Martin Sheridan, who was of Irish American heritage, then shouted, “This flag dips to no earthly king.”

The political drama continued the following day in the marathon when the first person to cross the finish line was an Italian, but he collapsed 5 times and had to be picked up and lifted across.  The second person to cross was an American, but by that time they had already declared the Italian the winner, raised the flag, and played the Italian anthem – Another insult! The following day the Americans filed a protest, the British agreed and gave the American the medal, but by that time everyone was heading back home and nobody ever knew about it.  So there were a lot of interesting politics.

Today:  A group of people took the New York Marathon statistics in 2004 studied the performance of all the people of age of 19 and found that average time continues to decrease (you speed up) until the age of 27.  Remember, a few weeks ago we said it takes 13 years to train for the marathon, and they said 10 years, but it is about the same.  You get better over 10 years of training.  Then after that you start to slow down.  It is inevitable.  How long does it take to get back to the performance level of a 19 year old?  Research found that the magic year was 64.  Thus, people 64 years of age can run as well as 19 year olds.  So when you are out there, and you are beating all these young kids, think about how democratic the marathon is, in other words, it is a sport for older people, and we can run against the youngers and we can cream a lot of them until the age of 64 …and some will do better after that.

Remember also that the 15th place finisher in the 1908 Olympic marathon took 4 hours, 4 minutes.  So just think about it, about 1/3 of our field here could have placed in the Olympics 100 years ago!

More on the history of the marathon and the Olympics appears in Chapter 34 “The First Marathon, Democracy and History” in Your First Marathon – The Last Word In Long Distance Running, by Jack H. Scaff Jr., M.D., F.A.C.S.M., available for purchase at the Honolulu Marathon Clinic on Sundays and online at:

For some good reading on nutrition, Dr. Scaff recommends everyone check out the daily postings on Dr. Alan Titchenal’s “Got Nutrients?” web site:

Here are some recent postings:

July 25, 2012
Pancreatic cancer is difficult to treat and has a very low survival rate. A study of 23,500 people found that people whose diets provided the most vitamins C and E as well as the mineral selenium were less likely to develop pancreatic cancer.

Consumer Link
High Dietary Antioxidant Intake Might Cut Pancreatic Cancer Risk

Research Link
Gut doi:10.1136/gutjnl-2011-301908 Published Online First 23 July 2012


July 24, 2012
A study conducted in China, where liver cancer is more common than in the U.S., found that consuming adequate vitamin E from foods or supplements was associated with a reduced risk of developing liver cancer.

Consumer Link
Vitamin E could protect against liver cancer, says study

Research Link
J Natl Cancer Inst. 2012 Jul 17. [Epub ahead of print]