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Why am I doing this? It’s a question all triathletes ask during some low moment. But there’s one time when that thought never crosses our minds: When we spew a perfectly drinkable bottle of champagne everywhere but into our mouths.
It’s a weird tradition, considering the cost—and appeal—of a magnum of bubbly. Like most strange human tricks, it started as an accident. Moet et Chandon, being just down the road from where the Le Mans Grand Prix auto race ends, began furnishing bottles as prizes in the 1950s. In 1966, however, someone left a bottle in the sun. When Swiss driver Jo Siffert picked up his prize, the cork failed, and Champagne flew everywhere. The next year, American driver Dan Gurney repeated the stunt, this time on purpose.
The history of champagne celebrations on the triathlon podium is a bit fizzier. A representative for the International Triathlon Union couldn’t pinpoint exactly when the tradition arrived in our sport, but a search of old podium photos shows open bottles being wielded starting in the late 20-aughts. According to Dan Berglund, public relations manager for Ironman, champagne has been a part of finish line celebrations at the world and regional Ironman championships for the past three years. This year, it made an appearance at every pro award ceremony in North America. (And yes, Ironman uses real Champagne, not just sparkling wine. No, no one has ever been too tired to lift the giant bottle over their head.)
While tradition certainly has something to do with why fire-hosing champagne feels so good, Chelsi Day, the director of counseling and sports psychology for athletes at the University of Indiana, says there’s probably more to the practice than pure ritualism. “Obviously some of this is learned. Champagne is a celebratory drink, and at some point, using it in this way just became ingrained. But there’s also a lot of emotion involved in winning something big like a championship,” she adds. An athlete with a carefully cultivated game face may avoid weeping tears of joy during an awards ceremony. But spraying a bubbly bottle of champagne? It’s an ideal metaphor for that winning feeling. “It shoots out, and it overflows. It’s such a good expression of that euphoria.”