He would know. When Lewis decided to adopt a vegan diet in 1990, he was already the fastest man on Earth, and his athletic career depended on a high-octane diet. Many in the sports world were skeptical of his sudden decision to stop eating animal products, doubting that a vegan diet could give a world-class athlete like Lewis the muscle-building protein and explosive energy he needed.
Sadly, those doubts were confirmed as Lewis wasted away, finishing dead last in all his events, sometimes crawling across the finish line because his plant-based diet left him so enfeebled.
Oh wait, not really: the year after he went vegan was actually the fastest in Lewis’s career. He had the best track meet of his life at the 1991 World Championships, (re-)breaking the world record for the 100 meter dash, and defeating his rival, Mike Powell, in an historic long jump showdown. And did I mention that Lewis was thirty years old at the time?
He didn’t stop there, either; he still had two Olympic games in him after that. The gold medals he won in Barcelona ‘92 and Atlanta ‘96 brought his career Olympic haul to nine gold and one silver, making him one of the winningest Olympic athletes in the history of the games.
If that’s not proof enough for you that the world’s top athletes can thrive on an animal-free diet, here’s a list of other Olympians who left both meat and their competition in the dust:
For eight straight years in the seventies and eighties, if you ran the 400-meter hurdles, second place was the best you could hope for. The winner was always going to be Edwin Moses, who ran the race 122 consecutive times without losing, and took home two Olympic gold medals to show for it. Moses was (and still is) a vegetarian.
But before Edwin Moses — before Carl Lewis — before Usain Bolt — before all the other track and field legends you’ve heard of, there was Paavo Nurmi. Often considered the greatest track and field athlete of all time, Nurmi absolutely owned the Olympics in the 1920s, bringing home a total of nine gold medals and three silver for his native Finland. He is the only human being in the history of sports to simultaneously hold world records in the mile, 5000 meter, and 10000 meter distances.
The “Flying Finn” became a vegetarian at the age of twelve and never looked back, so his historic athletic career was 100% meat-free.
London is hosting the thirtieth summer Olympics this year, but did you know that they also hosted the third Olympic games back in 1908? One of the footrace distances that year was five miles, for which the gold went to native heroEmil Voigt, a vegetarian and writer for the Guardian newspaper.
American wrestler Christopher Campbell trained hard for the 1980 Olympics, but that year’s US boycott prevented him from competing. He almost gave up on his dream as he became a lawyer and started a family, but in his thirties, he decided to start training again. It paid off: at the age of thirty-seven he became the oldest American wrestler ever to win an Olympic medal, taking home the bronze from Barcelona in 1992.
He had no doubt that a meat-free diet was key to medaling at an age when most athletes have retired. ”I became a vegetarian in 1979,” he said. “Back then I was so into doing everything I could to make the Olympics that I wanted to eat whatever would help me the most. Being a vegetarian, not eating saturated fats, my arteries aren’t clogged up. Oxygen goes to the cells, waste is delivered from them. Basically, you aren’t killing yourself.”
But that doesn’t mean his position on vegetarianism hasn’t evolved. “I’ve changed my mind about not eating meat. Now I also believe it’s morally wrong,” he said in an interview. You’re welcome to disagree with him, but I wouldn’t want to make this man angry.
Murray Rose was the Michael Phelps of the 1950s. Nicknamed the “Seaweed Streak” because of his vegetarian diet, the Australian swimmer won three gold medals at his 1956 Olympic debut, at the age of 17. He’d go on to win three more medals in Rome in 1960 and set a total of 15 world records in his career.
Alpine skier Bode Miller has racked up more Olympic medals than any other US skier — a bronze, three silver, and a gold. That’s in addition to his numerous gold medals from the World Championship and World Cup, in which he’s won almost too many races to count.
A vegetarian since birth, Miller has used some of his prize money to start his own organic farm.
Hannah Teter has won two Olympic medals — one gold and one silver — for her halfpipe snowboarding skills. She has remarked that her vegetarian diet makes her feel “stronger mentally and physically, and springier.” (Springiness, of course, being key in sport that’s about defying gravity.)
The future looks bright for veggie Olympians. Last week, Britain’s first medal of the games went to 23-year-old Lizzie Armitstead, who won the silver medal in the London Olympics’ punishing 87-mile road race, and was just milliseconds away from taking gold.
“I’ve been a vegetarian since I was about 10 years old, just simply because I don’t like meat and I can’t sort of get my head around eating a corpse,” Lizzie has said. And clearly, that isn’t stopping her from being one of the toughest distance cyclists in the world.