by Erika Mills
Every two years, the Olympics Games make heroes out of the world’s athletic elite. Champions win worldwide fame, admiration, and influence along with the medals and prize money. But any hero worth their salt knows that with great power, comes great responsibility. Popular athletes have huge sway over public opinion and consumer behavior, especially with youths; and are expected to be exemplars and endorsers of healthy, moral living. Given that, who better to promote a message against indulgence in a dangerous vice than an Olympian? Here is a selection of anti-substance abuse public health posters from NLM Digital Collections featuring Olympic athletes from different eras and nations.
Looking formidable and poised for a scrap, strongman Charles Rigoulet appears in this poster. Rigoulet represented France at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris where, at age 20, he won the gold medal in weightlifting in the light heavyweight class. He broke many world records in the sport before moving onto other athletic and artistic pursuits, including professional wrestling, boxing, racecar driving, and acting. In his wrestling career, he was billed as “L’Homme le plus fort du monde” (“The World’s Strongest Man”). He’s fabled to have broken out of prison, after being jailed for hitting a Nazi officer during World War II, by bending the bars of the cell with his bare hands—compelling proof that his wrestling moniker was well-deserved.
The poster was produced in the early 1950s by La Comité Nationale de Défense Contre L’Alcoolisme (The National Committee of Defense Against Alcoholism), a previous incarnation of France’s Association Nationale de Prévention en Alcoologie et Addictologie (National Association of Preventing Alcoholism and Addiction), whose roots go back to the temperance movement of the 19th century. The Association seeks to help people struggling with alcohol and drug abuse, compulsive gambling, and other addictive behaviors. It runs education and prevention programs, offers health services, and advocates for public policies.
Media darling Peggy Fleming features front and center on this poster. At 19, she won the gold medal for women’s individual figure skating at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France. Her victory catapulted her to stardom and brought figure skating to the fore in the U.S. In the whirlwind following her Olympic triumph, Fleming graced the cover of Life magazine, among many other publications, and had numerous guest spots on television shows. She went on to star in television specials and commercials, become a skating analyst for ABC Sports, and advocate for breast cancer awareness. She is considered one of the sport’s greatest and most influential ambassadors.
Produced in 1968—the year of Fleming’s Olympic win, this American Cancer Society poster marks a shift in anti-tobacco advocacy. Health organizations began to challenge the glamorous image of smoking that tobacco advertisers had fostered through pop culture by employing similar tactics, including celebrity endorsements. The American Cancer Society hoped that Fleming’s popularity and youth would appeal to young people, in particular. This new tack in anti-smoking advocacy wasn’t the only challenge to cigarette marketing. The following year, Congress passed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1969, which, among other things, banned cigarette advertisements in broadcast media.
Australian athlete Glynis Nunn became a national hero when she won the gold medal in the women’s heptathlon at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles—a Games mired in controversy stemming from the Eastern Bloc countries’ boycott. After her Olympic win, Nunn switched to hurdling, in which she competed until her retirement from competitive athletics in 1994. Since then, she has worked as a television commentator, coach, and administrator in Australian athletics.
This poster, published in the late 1980s, was part of The Drug Offensive. The multi-year program was initiated by the National Campaign Against Drug Abuse, a collaborative effort between Australian state/territory governments and non-profit organizations. The Drug Offensive kicked off in 1986 with the goals of raising awareness of the dangers of drug use and preventing substance abuse in specific communities with targeted drug education. The most visible facet of the Offensive was the media effort, consisting of television, radio, and print advertising. The National Campaign Against Drug Abuse worked with the Australian Sports Commission to produce this poster, as well as other advertisements featuring Australian athletes.
Jésus Mena represented Mexico in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, winning a bronze medal in men’s 10m platform diving. (He lost the gold to Greg Louganis.) Mena also competed in the men’s 3m springboard that year, although he didn’t medal in that contest. He later won a silver medal in the 1991 Pan American games and was the flag bearer for Mexico during the opening ceremony of the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. After retiring from diving, Mena became a competition judge and a vocal advocate for diving, serving as the chairman of the Mexican National Commission of Physical Culture and Sports.
The poster, featuring the tagline “Para no fumar lo major es…no empezar” (“In order to not smoke, it’s best…not to start”), was published by the National Health Service in Mexico, although it is endorsed by numerous health agencies and government bodies, including Pemex, the state-owned petroleum company, the Mexican National Institute for Respiratory Illnesses, and the Mexican Social Security Institute. Produced around 1990, the poster may be part of a larger-scale anti-tobacco effort. The slogan “Por Una Juventud Libre de Tabaco” (“For a Tobacco-Free Youth”) appears on Mexican postage stamps from 1990, as well.
For more public health posters and Olympic-themed materials, including books and films, visit NLM Digital Collections.
Erika Mills is outreach coordinator for the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.
I miss the Olympics
I worked in the Office of Smoking and Health in 1980-1 when we produced the Brooke Shields poster with her with a cigarette in each ear saying the smoking spoils your looks. The department rejected it because it was too “commercial” (ie too good) but the American Lung Association took it over and made many copies. I think the problem then was Ronald Reagan wanted to keep on the good side of Jesse Helms from North Carolina and during most of the time I worked there the DHHS was trying to eliminate the office and ended up cutting out budget in half and “riffing” half the staff.