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The story of a Swedish Olympian in 1968 who had to forfeit his medal for drinking beer

Rattled nerves, a pistol, and one punched horse.

The 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico are remembered for monumental moments that changed and transcended the world of sports. Tommy Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists on the podium in solidarity with the Black Freedom Movement. East and West Germany competing separately for the first time. Dick Fosbury changing the high jump forever with the “Fosbury Flop.”

It was also the first games featuring drug tests, resulting in the first athlete forced to forfeit his medal for testing positive.

His drug of choice? Beer.

Doping has been part of modern sports for over 100 years, and the early days are more horrific than you can imagine.

This, from an article in the Kawasaki Journal of Medical Welfare, details the first documented case at the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis:

“British-born American marathoner Tom Hicks was given small bits of strychnine with brandy and a little egg-white by his coach Charles Lucas. In fact, Lucas admitted that he doped Hicks at the 22-mile mark of the race in order to stimulate him and help him finish. After the race was over Hicks collapsed and had to be revived by four physicians.”

In the early days of the Olympic Games, there was no policy that explicitly prohibited doping. Amphetamines, synthesized testosterone, anabolic steroids — all used liberally, by numerous countries throughout the world. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) began looking into early drug testing, and how they could combat the prevalent use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport. There isn’t much information about what happened at the 1965 Pentathlon World Championships, but it’s widely viewed as the catalyst for why alcohol was included in the IOC’s list of banned substances in 1968.

Take this story with a huge grain of salt, because it’s only mentioned in a few places — but it’s also way too good not to mention:

Herbert Polzhuber was a multi-talented athlete who competed for Austria in fencing and pentathlon in four straight Olympic Games. He also took part in the 1965 Pentathlon World Championship in Leipzig. After posting good scores in equestrian and fencing, Polzhuber was set to take part in pistol shooting, the third event. It’s unclear whether nerves, or just a desire to party, fueled Polzhuber, but the result was the same. The story goes that Polzhuber drank 10 beers and downed an entire bottle of cognac before he was set to shoot, at which point he made it onto the pistol course, fired all his bullets into the ground and passed out on the spot. The only report of this incident comes from the Hungarian publication Teol, who were told the story by Hungarian pentathletes who were also at the ‘65 World Championships.

At this point we’ve established a couple of things:

  1. Sports had wild doping problems that people were trying to fix.
  2. The pentathlon was weird as hell.

Fast forward to the 1968 Olympics. Sweden’s Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall, competing in the games for his second time, was trying to build off an 11th-place finish in Tokyo in 1964. After posting a 1,010 in riding he found himself in the hunt. He followed up with a 908 in fencing, and suddenly Liljenwall’s dream was being realized. With three days left he was sitting in a position where he could actually reach the podium. Perhaps not in the individual event, but in teams Sweden was out-performing the competition, courtesy of countryman Björn Ferm. Ferm has been dominating the pentathlon, and in a commanding position Liljenwall didn’t want to let his team down.

Liljenwall was an emotional wreck shortly before the pistol event. A night of sleep didn’t calm him, and when it came time to compete he could barely focus. In an effort to steady his nerves, he drank two beers before going out to the pistol course. Liljenwall shot extremely well, and he thought everything was fine. He took his drug test, returned to the Olympic Village and prepared himself for the swim and cross country race.

The Swedes surged ahead following the swim, and gold was well within their grasp until they all faltered in the cross country. Still, early results were dominant enough that Ferm won the individual gold medal and Sweden won bronze as a team. The trio accepted their medals and prepared to celebrate when they got the news that Liljenwall had tested positive for alcohol following the pistol shooting. His official Blood Alcohol Concentration exceeded 0.04, the limit the IOC had imposed for the games. The trio were stripped of their medals and Liljenwall was distraught.

Liljenwall returned to competition in the 1972 Olympics, but never came close to the podium again. He finished in 25th place in individual competition and eighth in the team event before retiring from competition at the age of 33.

Alcohol remained a banned substance on the World Anti Doping Authority’s list all the way until 2018, when it was announced that athletes would no longer be tested for alcohol during the Olympic games. Liljenwall remains the lone athlete kicked out of international competition for alcohol, as well as the first case of doping resulting in a loss of medal.

Perhaps the wildest part of all this? Liljenwall drinking beer wasn’t even the weirdest thing to happen at the ‘68 pentathlon. German Hans Todt became so angry with his horse during the equestrian event after it wouldn’t jump over an obstacle that he started punching the horse in the face. He had to be pulled off the animal by his Olympic teammates. He received no penalty.

The Olympics are so bizarre.