Sporting Life

Hunger for success gives some stars excessive food for thought

Vasily Alekseyev set 79 weightlifting world records in seven years in the 1970s, weighed over 345 pounds (156kg), was the first to jerk 500 pounds (226kg) but one number outweighs them all. The size of his omelette. Legend has it that it was made of 36 eggs. An entire female gymnastics team could be fed on it. For a week.

Alekseyev is my hero because he probably never saw a lettuce he liked and perhaps the only rocket he admired was Sputnik. These days athletes weigh their food, check their body fat and talk dirty about stuff like micronutrients. It's enough to drive a reasonable man to drink. Of course, under Novak Djokovic's gluten-free rules, most beer is disallowed.

Used to be a time in tennis when players were warned against drinking water. Apparently it caused bloating. So they stood around (there were no chairs at change-overs) and played five sets with no tie-breakers. Now an entire health food shop of dates, bananas, dried fruit and energy drinks emerges from their bags.

John McEnroe, who once claimed he was on the "Haagen-Dazs diet", would be mortified, for once upon a time genius was born of junk food. A letter writer to The New York Times in 2005, commenting on the role of steroids in baseball, wrote that "it occurred to me that we have overlooked the fact that the greatest baseball player in history, Babe Ruth, also regularly ingested body mass-altering substances - hot dogs and beer".

Now Claudio Ranieri has gladdened our hearts by allowing his players to eat however much they want. Some of us amateurs relish these stories because it makes sport seem less like a scientific programme. And if weekend hacks like us dream of winning Wimbledon and dating models, almost none of us fantasise about subsisting on carrot-ginger soup and fresh-pressed green juice to get there.

"Your body is an entirely different machine from mine," wrote Djokovic in his book Serve to Win. Firstly, we thank him for referring to us as machines. Secondly, he's right. His body cries out for vegetables, beans, fish, fruit, nuts, seeds, chickpeas. Ours yell pizza. Which is what Ranieri rewarded his Leicester team with recently. Which is what David Moyes should have done; instead, he banned chips at Manchester United and was, understandably, sacked.


The rotund Vasily Alekseyev of the Soviet Union en route to winning the gold medal and setting a world record in the super heavyweight weightlifting category at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. His omelettes also set culinary records. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Still, we admire modern athletes because of their sacrifice and this doesn't mean training on Christmas day but forsaking foods. Lim Heem Wei, the former gymnast, gave up fries, pratas and dessert before competition. Swimmer Joseph Schooling told us he's cutting down on his sugar. Footballer Aleksandar Duric swore off red meat and ate a single banana before training.

Athletes don't necessarily eat little - super heavyweight lifter Fernando Reis averages a modest 8,000 calories a day - but they eat wisely. Well, age forces them to. Usain Bolt reportedly ate 1,000 chicken nuggets in 10 days at the 2008 Beijing Olympics - you can swallow that claim if you want - and then fried the opposition. Now, reformed, he said that the hardest thing is "eating vegetables all the time". We commiserate.

Greatness has no fixed nutrition and a varied menu of diets has sprouted across sports. Local swimmer Quah Zheng Wen, who sweats calories, recently ate brunches in America which comprised of bacon, pancakes, eggs, waffles, hash browns, yogurt and fruit. "It was crazy," he grins. "My stomach got bigger."

These days athletes weigh their food and talk dirty about stuff like micronutrients. It's enough to drive a reasonable man to drink. Of course, under Novak Djokovic's gluten-free rules, most beer is disallowed.

Michael Jordan's pre-game meal, wrote Sports Illustrated, used to be a 23-ounce (650g) steak. This, amateurs would gleefully imitate; Lyoto Machida's, we would not. Baseball players occasionally use their urine to toughen their palms, but Machida simply drinks his. A word of caution to smirkers: He is a former UFC light heavyweight champion.

Diet doesn't make champions, effort does, but food is the fuel in this endeavour. And the distance between amateurs and pros doesn't always lie in what we eat but how often we eat it. They are disciplined; we see a burger and lose control.

Eddie Ng, for instance, the mixed martial arts fighter who lives in Singapore, talks eloquently about macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates, protein) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). A member of the Evolve Fight Team, and head of its nutrition programme, he once - before my incredulous eyes - brutally subdued a fighter in 35 seconds. Evidently a combination of kale, spinach and watercress packs a mighty punch.

But even Ng, all muscled 77kg, cannot resist temptation. Six days he is an exercising, dieting ascetic. But on day seven he is a "no restrictions, no guilt" caveman.

And so on Saturdays he eats burgers and fries. Then he moves to another place. Maybe for pizza. Then shifts to another joint. Definitely for cake and kaya toast. Then possibly switches to a McDonald's. For chicken McNuggets.

How long are your breaks? "Depends where the next location is."

His pit stops may change some weeks but his finale never alters. "At night I will eat potato chips." On Sunday, he says, "he feels horrible". This might be the only day to fight him.

As monumental as Ng's appetite is, for surprise nothing can match a lunch I shared roughly 20 years ago with an Indian sportsman. He ate with relish, with gusto, with ferocity. His sport ironically did not require him to take a single footstep, but he was merely nourishing his great brain. His name was V. Anand and he was on his way to becoming a five-time world chess champion.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 21, 2016, with the headline 'Hunger for success gives some stars excessive food for thought'. Print Edition | Subscribe