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What Do Victorian-Era Women and America’s Best Soccer Player Have in Common?

• July 29, 2013 • 2:17 PM

(PHOTO: ALBUMEN/FLICKR)

They both use smelling salts!

Over the past few weeks, Landon Donovan has started six games for the United States Men’s National Soccer Team, scoring five goals and registering seven assists in helping the U.S. win the 2013 Gold Cup. All of that means, among other things, that Landon Donovan has sniffed smelling salts on national or cable television six times this month.

Right before kickoff of every game, with the camera usually on him, Donovan takes a whiff of a packet of smelling salts and then tosses it aside. Then he proceeds to play a professional sport.

You’ve probably seen smelling salts getting wafted around when a player in an NFL game gets what-is-most-likely-a-concussion. (Standards on NFL sidelines have since been updated.) Two years ago, Tom Brady was spotted sniffing something out of a Gatorade cup, which he confirmed to be smelling salts. And back in 2005, the the Florida Times-Union looked into the widespread use of smelling salts in the NFL. (“There is no question that you get a high after doing them,” said Michael Strahan, who is a co-host of Live! With Kelly and Michael and once played for the New York Giants. “It’s not like you get the munchies afterwards, but they are a great pick-me-up. They help you get ready for the game.”) More recently, hockey players have been openly using and talking about them. Check out this guy:

The medical professionals quoted in the Times-Union piece were divided on whether or not the salts actually had any effect, but none of them were willing to say that inhaling smelling salts didn’t have any negative side effects, either. Rewind that back, play it again, and that same sentence could be applied to the general playing of just about any sport, too. There’s good and there’s bad—and this maybe rubs up against the invisible line of what we will and won’t accept in sports, which is a discussion that’s not much more than two whining hamster wheels spinning into each other, bouncing back off a wall and spinning toward each other again, and forever.

Still, smelling salts are weird. Not weird in the sense that you’re basically huffing ammonia into your lungs. (There are worse things.) But weird in that they were pretty recently used as an approved treatment in professional sports leagues—and no one really seems to know that much about them.

Smelling salts, it appears, became most prominent as a Victorian era treatment for “swooning” and “fainting.” Some police officers even used them, according to io9, as “lady revivers”—a way to revive all of the fainting women. But they were probably even used before then:

It may be of interest to some that there is a surprisingly long history of the use of such agents. The term Hammoniacus sal appears in the writings of Pliny, although it is not known whether the term is identical to the more modern sal ammoniac, which was known to the alchemists as early as the 13th century. Chaucer also noted the existence of sal ammoniac alongside a large number of other materia medica. This spirit was mainly used by textile dyers in the Middle Ages in the form of fermented urine to alter the colour of vegetable dyes.

That’s from a 2006 paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, written by Paul McCrory. As for the effects of smelling salts, he writes that use “alters the pattern of breathing, resulting in improved respiratory flow rates and possibly alertness.” Yet, he concludes:

In Victorian historical tradition, smelling salts were an effective method of helping ladies who had fallen prey to fainting fits. In modern sports medicine, however, when used correctly, smelling salts are unlikely to have significant benefit or cause significant adverse effects in sport‐related head injury. The real danger is that the injudicious use of these agents as a substitute for a medical assessment may delay optimal treatment and, as such, should not be recommended.

That’s no answer, really, outside of “smelling salts don’t really seem to do all that much, either way.” Sniffing a dump truck-load full of them probably isn’t a good idea. And maybe they help Landon Donovan, maybe the don’t. Most of sports, after all, is in your mind. If you need to channel your inner Victorian-era aristocrat to get there, then, well, do your thing.

Ryan O'Hanlon
Senior Digital Editor Ryan O’Hanlon joined Pacific Standard from Outside, where he was an assistant online editor. He is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, and his writing has appeared in Deadspin, Grantland, The Awl, New York, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @rwohan.

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