Lizzie Armitstead was just 10 years old when she told her parents she
wanted to become a vegetarian. Yesterday, she won
Great Britain's first medal of the Olympic Games, taking silver in
the gruelling 87-mile road cycling race, no less.
I was brought
up as vegetarian from birth and have been a long distance runner for
most of my adult life. 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
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
However, 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."
Yet 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. In honour of her medal, here
are a few other great vegetarian Olympians:
Paavo Nurmi. Photograph: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty
One of the
greatest distance runners in history, the 'Flying Finn' won nine
gold medals in long-distance running events during the 1924 and 1928
Olympics, including the 1,500m and 5,000m on the same afternoon in Paris
Known as the 'Seaweed Streak' because of his vegan diet,
Australian swimmer Rose won four Olympic gold medals in the 1956 and
1960 Olympics. He was a vegan from from childhood.
Gold medalist Edwin Moses. Photograph: Bob Thomas/Getty Images
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.
One of the
greatest American alpine skiers of all time, Miller has won five
Olympic medals, including gold in Vancouver in 2010. He was raised as a
vegetarian on an organic farm in New Hampshire.
Carl Lewis crosses the line in 1991. Photograph: Getty Images
Carl Lewis wasn't a vegetarian when he won four gold medals in Los
Angeles in 1984,
but turning vegan later in his career only seemed to help. In 1991
he won the 100m at the world championships at the age of 30 in a world
record. It was, he has said, his greatest race.
The last British man to win a long-distance gold medal at the
Olympics, in 1908 in London,
Voigt was a former Guardian writer as well as a dedicated vegetarian.
The wrestling arena is no exception when it comes to vegetarian
winners. Campbell missed his chance at Olympic gold in 1980 through the
US boycott of the Games - he won the world title in 1981 -
but he managed to come back in 1992 to win bronze in Barcelona at the
ripe old age of 37.
Martina Navratilova in action in 2004. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty
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
She is a strong advocate of vegetarianism.