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Miracle Mushrooms for Athletic Performance

Chinese athletes are rumored to take medicinal mushrooms to help them dominate certain sports. But here's the thing: They are totally legal, and you can take them, too!

sportgraphic / Shutterstock.com

I remember the 1984 Summer Olympics held in Los Angeles. I was 16 at the time.

Carl Lewis and Edwin Moses made history by winning gold medals in track and field. Mary Lou Retton received perfect scores in her final events, culminating in the first American woman winning an individual gold medal for gymnastics. Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin were on the men’s basketball team that won gold prior to becoming Dream Teamer’s in 1992 and winning it all again in Spain. 

I remember the Soviet Union boycotting the games along with several other countries. However, there was a newcomer country to the Olympics: China.

They made their first appearance at the Games since 1932, and it was the Chinese—particularly their women’s swim team—that caught my attention. My memory of the team, to this day, was that the women all looked huge, like they were on something interesting to enhance their performance.

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I don’t remember much about following the Olympics over the years, except for certain events, but somehow I always seemed to be looking at the Chinese women’s swim team every Summer Games. They made an impact internationally in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, winning four silver medals in individual events. Four years later in Barcelona, Spain, they increased their total to four golds and five silvers, dominating the freestyle sprints.

They’ve been doing it ever since.

What I remember most was that several of the members of the Chinese Olympic team were taking large doses of a medicinal mushroom, called Cordyceps. This was my introduction to the world of alternative medicine—learning about the power of mushrooms to affect athletic performance. It fascinated me.

Since then, the entire Chinese Olympic team has been rumored to use Cordyceps for ongoing performance enhancement. In the spring of 1993, eight Chinese female runners broke the 2:27 hour mark in the Tianjin marathon: an incredible achievement from just one nation. The following August, it was Chinese women who won every single track distance event at the Stuttgart World Championships. A month later, Chinese women dominated the National Games in Beijing, breaking the records for the 1,500-, 3,000- and 10,000- meter races.

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Just what kind of mushroom is this?

When you look at the growth cycle of Cordyceps sinensis, it gets a bit gross. The Chinese name for Cordyceps is literally translated as “summer plant, winter worm.” This is because the fungus grows as a parasite out of the heads of bugs, each species targeting a specific kind of insect. Any bug infected by the spores in wintertime will be dead by summer—hence the name.

Cordyceps sinensis is known as "the caterpillar fungus” for obvious reasons. It grows out of larvae fof the Himalayan bat moth, and was first found in the mountain regions of western China and Tibet several centuries ago. Herdsmen noticed that their animals were more energized and lively after feasting on large patches of mushroom-infested caterpillars. It has been incorporated in traditional Chinese medicine, about which accounts were first written in ancient texts of the seventh century.

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