Smoking’s bad for you. Like, really, really bad for you. It’s a bad habit to start, a smelly and expensive habit to maintain and a hard habit to quit. But it’s perpetually popular — one in five adults smoke, with 15 percent of global deaths attributed to it, a pretty gross statistic for something that is, at least initially, opt-in.
Up to a certain point in history, pretty much everyone smoked, whatever was expected from them physically — cigarette ads in the 1960s and earlier were filled with grinning athletes cheerfully sucking on butts. Joe DiMaggio was in Chesterfield ads (“the baseball man’s cigarette”), while English footballer Stanley Matthews happily pushed “smooth, clean smoking.” Plenty of athletes claimed it “opened up their lungs” and let them run faster, which is manifestly not true.
These days, though, it’s a lot harder to get away with. Competition is so fierce, there’s so much money involved and players’ performances are so relentlessly analyzed that very few big athletes would risk the lung damage — Tom Brady still gets asked about the time he was spotted having a drag in 2009.
Most of the time, an athlete enjoying a cigarette is like the cherry on top of an enormous ice cream sundae of other inadvisable substances. Alex Rodriguez enjoyed the occasional smoke, for instance, but was also up to his eyeballs in enough anabolic steroids and human growth hormone that it wouldn’t have touched the sides. And with smokeless tobacco — still carcinogenic but in a way that doesn’t slow your running — ever-popular with athletes, who needs a pack of smokes anyway?
There’s obviously a difference between the occasional celebratory cigar (as enjoyed by seemingly everyone in sports, from Michael Jordan to the Canadian women’s ice hockey team) and a full-on smoking habit. But some people have somehow managed it, smoking heavily while achieving superhuman sporting feats. People like…
Allen, who died only a few months ago, was one of the biggest stars in baseball in the 1970s. He began his career getting death threats as the first Black player on a minor league team, having to wear a batting helmet even when fielding due to the amount of things his own team’s fans would throw at him. He ended it as a seven-time All Star with both a Rookie of the Year and MVP title under his belt. During the brunt of his career, he was also an R&B singer, performing in nightclubs and releasing records as Rich Allen and the Ebonistics. He is also one of the only people to have graced the cover of Sports Illustrated with a cigarette in his mouth, casually juggling three balls and a cancer stick on the June 12, 1972 issue.
Daly has never really looked like a professional athlete — for a while, he sported a bowl cut and a mullet at the same time, and throughout his career he has favored the kind of garish-ass polo shirt usually seen on Florida retirees, tucked in under a beer belly, ciggie permanently dangling from his mouth. He looks like Guy Fieri’s dad. He’s the kind of dude that, since having to leave booze behind for health reasons, will still roll up to the golf course drinking Coke from a McDonald’s cup, chain-smoking and signing women’s asses. Nonetheless, he’s managed to earn millions and win three Majors, all while puffing on an estimated 40 smokes a day. In October 2020, he got his 11th hole-in-one while not wearing any shoes or socks.
Balotelli leads a more eventful life than a lot of soccer players. The Italian striker, currently playing for Monza, seems to be a pretty exhausting guy to be the boss of, with his former Manchester City manager telling the BBC, “I told him, if you played with me 10 years ago I would give you every day maybe one punch in your head. […] I don’t speak with him every day, otherwise I would need a psychologist.”
When Balotelli joined Manchester City in 2011, he was involved in a car crash just a few days after arriving. Police investigating the crash found almost seven grand on Balotelli, something he explained away with “I am rich.” He’s set his house on fire with fireworks the same week as being named as a firework safety ambassador; deliberately driven his car into a women’s prison; thrown darts at a kid; fired an air pistol in an Italian square; and broken a curfew to have rolling-pin sword fights in an Indian restaurant. He also likes smoking! He’s been fined for smoking in a train toilet, admonished by various clubs for smoking before matches, and despite being extraordinarily talented, damaged his career with his generally erratic behavior.
Renowned as one of the greatest soccer players of all time, Brazil’s Sócrates was an interesting dude. Immediately recognizable due to sporting a bushy beard and headband, he spent the glory years of his professional career also studying medicine, and was the only qualified doctor to ever captain his team at the World Cup. He was politically outspoken, campaigning relentlessly for democracy in Brazil and leveraging his fame to get people on board. He also smoked like a fuckin’ chimney — the Guardian referred to him as “the smoking supremo” and “a force of nature — and nicotine.” He once told a reporter, “I am an anti-athlete. I cannot deny myself certain lapses from the strict regime of a sportsman. You have to take me as I am.”
A five-time All-Star who won two World Series, famed both for his defensive skills and his excellent moustache, Hernandez took a lot of drugs. He was suspended for a season after accusations that he was distributing cocaine to teammates, and played at least one game for the Cardinals while on coke, but doesn’t remember which one. He was also a big fan of smoking, going through a pack a game, except for on very stressful occasions, where he would get through two. Forty cigarettes in just under five hours is an average of about one every seven minutes, a pretty hardcore schedule even for a non-athlete. Hernandez quit smoking in 1994 and describes it as the best thing he ever did.
In a way, high jumper Cloete owes her success to smoking. She took up the habit as a teenager, and while a keen athlete, found that her pack-a-day habit was interfering with her breathing when running the 400 and 800 meters. She reasoned that the high jump would require less training, and turned out to be phenomenal at it. She won two World Championships and two Olympic silvers for South Africa, achieving a personal best of 2.06 meters in 2003 — a height only six women have ever jumped higher than. Throughout her career she enjoyed describing herself as “smoking fit,” telling reporters at the 2004 Olympics that she never felt like quitting, and would like the rules to be loosened up enough that she could spark up between jumps.
To be a successful hurdler you need to make big strides, and few have made larger strides for heavily-smoking athletes than Strong. She often spoke about enjoying a post-race cigarette, but really upped the ante when she won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in 1982 and posed for photos, medal in one hand, cig in the other. The public loved her. “The fact that I wasn’t the model athlete — I used to go out, have a good time, have a good laugh, and I smoked — had an effect on how the public felt about me,” she told the BBC. “They thought I was a little bit different from all the dedicated athletes that did nothing but train and compete all the time.” Two years later she got silver at the 1984 Summer Olympics, missing out on the gold by just 0.04 of a second.
Compared to other sports, cricket is pretty laid-back when it comes to players taking care of their bodies. Australian cricketer David Boon once drank 52 beers on one flight, for instance, while members of a victorious English Ashes team pissed in the Prime Minister’s garden. There are countless stories of smashed cricketers passing out during warm-ups and playing matches while the worse for wear — there were even, back in the 1880s, two “Smokers versus Non-Smokers” matches, in which both teams competed for a huge amount of cigars.
Not even they loved smoking as much as Warne though. Warne — a controversial figure throughout his career due to his erratic behavior, but widely renowned as one of the greatest bowlers ever — played for Australia from 1992 to 2007, taking the second most wickets of any player in history, smoking all the time. In 2000, shortly after he accepted 200,000 Australian dollars from a nicotine patch company to quit smoking, he was photographed with a cigarette in his mouth by two teenagers, who he proceeded to call “cockhead” and “fuckface.” In 2006, a disagreement with his coach preceding a three-day training camp saw him trading changes of clothes for cigarettes, spending the trip without a change of underwear but with his beloved smokes. His teammate Michael Clarke later recalled, “In the middle of the bush, sleeping bag only, no cover, no shelter, on the ground and it was pitch black. All you could see was this orange light coming out of someone’s sleeping bag and it was Warnie just sucking his dart back.”
Soccer players aren’t known for their good behavior off-pitch, and some of the biggest names in the sport have been caught smoking and presented all kinds of excuses. England legend Paul Gascoigne claimed it stopped him gaining weight. Dimitar Berbatov, while photographed with a cigarette in his mouth fairly frequently, once insisted he had never smoked in his life and just liked posing as a smoker when his picture was being taken in order to look cool. Zidane, however, was such an extraordinary player that he could be used as an excuse by other people — when Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere was widely criticized for smoking, he responded by tweeting images of Zidane with a coffin nail in his mouth. Zidane was part of an anti-smoking ad campaign in 2002, but was spotted puffing away to de-stress before the 2006 World Cup semifinal.
NFL legend Moss has been very open about smoking weed throughout his career, and has called for the league to rethink its rules on banned substances. (He also once got fined $10,000 for pretending to show people his ass — not actually showing anyone his ass, just pretending, which seems ridiculous. How much would it have been if he had actually shown his ass? How much for pretending to take a dump?) He’s also smoked a lot of cigarettes in his time. There are pictures of him on fishing trips grinning his head off, a cigarette sticking out of his mouth and a giant bass in his hand, none of which really do anything for “smoking isn’t cool” arguments.