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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 27th July 2012

In honour of the day, I thought it might be interesting to look at the connections between the Olympics and poison. It was, in a way, encouraging to find very few such connections. Over the history of the modern games, at least, I would have expected to see more stories.

In fact, I found very few items where plant based poisons have been associated with the Olympics so I’m going to widen my net to all poisons.

The stories I did find cover a range from the very serious, through the ridiculous to the bizarre but true and I’ll leaf through them in that order so we finish with the humorous rather than the sad.

There’s been quite a bit of protest about the involvement of Dow Chemical as a sponsor of the games. In May, I wrote about the odd statement made by the CEO but that isn’t related to the current protests. Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide, the company responsible for the Bhopal poisoning disaster1 following a leak of methyl isocyanate gas. For many people, Dow has not done enough to atone for that tragedy and for others a chemical company is always going to be a villain.

During the preparations for the 2008 games, Russian wrestler, Bilyal Makhov, became ill and was diagnosed as suffering mercury poisoning. Though doctors confidently said he had inhaled mercury vapour they were unable to explain how this happened. Makhov made a full recovery but not in time to take part in Beijing so he is hoping that London will offer him the chance to win a medal.

Those are the serious stories. What of the ridiculous?

Three such stories caught my eye. Unsurprisingly, they all come from the British press; two relate to that old favourite the alleged ‘terror threat’ and the third is about that other staple; nature is about to kill us all.

As early as March, the Daily Telegraph was reporting an Al Qaeda plot to kill visitors to the Olympics in London.2 The plotters, apparently, intended to mix cyanide with hand cream so that people would absorb the deadly poison through the skin. Now it is true that cyanide can be absorbed through the skin though it is difficult to define just how much is required for a lethal dose to be absorbed. There is, however, a rather obvious flaw in the ‘plot’. How do you persuade enough people to use hand-cream at the same time to cause enough deaths to produce the terror that is part of the job description of the terrorist?

The alleged plot was discovered not by some brave spy going deep undercover in a known terrorist cell. No, as the Telegraph says in the opening line of its report ‘Extremists have posted “detailed instructions” on a website’. Never mind the impracticality of the proposed route of administration, does the Telegraph really think that a post on a publicly accessible website is proof of a genuine threat? What the Americans call ‘a credible threat’.

Cyanide in hand-cream is just too incredible to ever be credible. Mind you, these ‘“detailed instructions”’ were in Arabic so, for the Telegraph, that’s all that matters. Perhaps the Telegraph has never heard the term ‘Dark Web’. I’ve written about it 16th February 2012 in the context of the Silk Road website that sells all many of illicit products but, if terrorists really wanted to use the internet to spread their evil intent, I’m pretty sure they’d get the TOR software and set up an invisible site for the purpose.

In fact, I like to think they already have. It would be wonderful if some Islamist comedian had established a website on the Dark Web where people could develop ever more bizarre ‘terror plots’ and compete to see which ones garnered the greatest media coverage.

The second poison terror threat comes courtesy of Mail Online3. This is the idea that terrorists were planning to load a small remote-controlled aircraft with a biological toxin and fly it into the Olympic Park. It seems to have originated from a meeting with residents to explain the need for missile batteries to be stationed on the roof of their blocks of flats to deal with any aerial threat. The officer in charge, it seems, was talking about the nature of such threats and said it could be anything from a hijacked airliner to a small ‘drone’. When he refused to go into more detail the Mail was able to put its fevered imagination to work.

It is interesting to judge just how ridiculous this ‘threat’ was from the failure of any other media outlet to pick it up and either re-report the Mail or make it its own.

For the natural threat, we return to the Telegraph.4 It wasn’t the only news outlet to report on the spread of poisonous caterpillars whose hairs can cause stomach upsets and asthma attacks if inhaled or ingested. It does seem to be the only one, however, to realise that there are oak trees in the same neighbourhood as the Olympic venues enabling it to predict that millions of people could become sick during the games.

I don’t like the cliché ‘You couldn’t make it up’ for the simple reason that they do.

The final story about the Olympics and poison is one I’ve written about before. I find it amusing and ridiculous and, also, the perfect response to all those people who complain about the way the games have evolved in recent times and yearn for ‘the old days’ when, allegedly, it was all about the sport and good behaviour and no-one tried to enhance their performance with substances.

In fact, it is such a favourite story that I’m going to plagiarise myself and repeat what I wrote last October;

[T]his happened during the 1904 Olympic Games.

Travelling to the USA was no easy matter and, as a result, only 12 countries were represented at the games. Even so, some of the competitors for the 11 non-host countries were Americans with some tenuous link to the country they represented. And it wasn’t just this small entry field that made the 1904 games less than the Olympic movement hoped for.

1904 olympic marathon

First across the line in the marathon was an American called Fred Lorz but it took only a short time before suspicions were aroused. People said they had seen him waving from a vehicle along the route and, when challenged, Lorz freely admitted he had ridden for quite a distance after becoming exhausted. It is said that the vehicle he was in broke down short of the stadium so he completed the journey on foot and was surprised when he was acclaimed the winner. He appears to have claimed that he got caught up by events and wasn’t able to tell anyone he was not the rightful winner.

After the error came to light, the gold medal was awarded to Thomas Hicks. Hicks was an American citizen but, having been born in England, he was competing for the UK. But Hicks own marathon was not without incident. He had collapsed from exhaustion around fifteen miles into the event and his support team gave him strychnine, from Strychnos nux-vomica, the poison nut tree, mixed with egg whites and washed down with brandy to revive him.

Some reports suggest that he required another four ‘revivers’ before reaching the stadium and that he was so intoxicated that his coaches held him up, with his legs still running but not in contact with the ground, to get him over the line. Though his feet are on the ground in the picture they may not have stayed there.

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