Most of us can’t remember a time when Gatorade didn’t exist, but the sports beverage owes a large part of its permanence to an Indianapolis business — that, and it works.
A half-century ago, at the same time when contractors and architects were reconfiguring Terre Haute’s Memorial Stadium from its original design as a minor league baseball park into the first stadium in the world to use AstroTurf, a team of researchers at the University of Florida, led by an eclectic professor of renal medicine, was developing Gatorade.
In 50 years that have followed, the world has reinvented itself time and again: IBM brought the personal computer into our homes, and Apple put in our pockets; recording engineers moved our music from vinyl grooves to magnetic tape to digitized disc to files on memory sticks; our cars can tell us when we need to put air in our tires and change our oil, and we can typically go through an entire pay cycle without touching a scrap of paper currency.
Given the costs involved in stadium development, perhaps it’s not that surprising that the home of Sycamore football remains (for the most part) unchanged in that same span of time. But considering most of us have grown up in the strongest vortex of market volatility in human history, it’s all but shocking that Gatorade would endure as a beverage.
“I think Gatorade has been so enduring because the product is continually evolving and adapting to the needs of athletes not just during competition but before and after as well,” said Julie Hanley, head coach of women’s soccer at State. “The product has been able to sustain the ever-changing landscape of the sporting world and provide what consumers want.”
“It went a long, long time without any significant competition,” added John Gartland, retired head coach for both women’s track and field and cross-country. “It reached the point where the name applied to any sports drink much like the word ‘Kleenex’ is used for any kind of tissue. But I also think the product does what it’s supposed to do. It replenishes electrolytes after a long round of exercise. Gatorade had credibility from the very beginning, and it’s still there. That’s what’s amazing about this 50-year run.”
As a brand, Gatorade reached national prominence in the aftermath of the 1967 Orange Bowl when Ray Graves’ Gators toppled Bobby Dodd’s Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets 27-10. Turning to clamoring reporters demanding explanation, Dodd quipped, “We didn’t have Gatorade; that made the difference.”
It’s a remarkably auspicious ascension for the drink’s chemical patriarch, Robert Cade. Famously depicted in a 1968 Sports Illustrated feature (one which amusingly details an altercation with campus police after being pulled over riding a bicycle while intoxicated), Cade launched the Gatorade experiment after a conversation with Dewayne Douglas, the university’s freshman football coach, who approached Cade with a simple question: “Why don’t football players pee during a game?”
In its early incarnations, Gatorade was not only clear, but it also tasted much like salt-water. Cade first attempted to soften its harshness on the palette by adding lemon and would largely continue his struggle with the product’s taste until selling Gatorade’s rights to Indianapolis-based Stokley-Van Camp. Once in the hands of the pork-and-beans commercial giant, Gatorade would assume its iconic appearance, texture and taste.
“The first time I saw a commercial for Gatorade was 1969, which would have been my junior year in college,” Gartland recalled. “So when I was a runner at Wisconsin-Lacrosse, we didn’t have that. But I remember using it in the 1970s, and when I started coaching at the high school level in the mid-’70s some of my runners drank it. I didn’t know much about its electrolyte content back then, but I did know that the stomach could handle it, and it was putting fluids back in the body.”
Lindsey Eberman, Indiana State athletic trainer and associate professor in the College of Health and Human Services, notes that in addition to superficial improvements, the beverage has evolved chemically as well: “The original Gatorade was made as a 6 percent carbohydrate solution, but given all the changes that may be associated with using sugar substitutes, this can impact the rate of gastric emptying, which in turn can impact absorption.”
By the time Hanley first noticed the drink, Gatorade had established itself as a cultural institution woven into athletics on a level akin to apparel and equipment brands names such as Nike or Adidas.
“The first time I heard of Gatorade I think would have been when I was in elementary school,” Hanley said. “My older brother played soccer growing up as well, so I did everything I could to be like him, Gatorade and all.”
Noting that his first personal experience with Gatorade occurred in a supermarket, Gartland added that the drink’s prevalence in campus athletics grew over time: “About 10 years ago, our athletic trainers began ordering it in huge amounts,” he said, “and each week, we would get the amount we needed for a specific competition or in special cases even a specific practice.”
While pointing out that nothing is distinctly different from the bottled and powdered variations, Eberman makes note of the primary reason State and other universities opt for the latter: “Individualized bottles for each athlete might pose a great challenge in terms of shipping and the environment. Although these might not be primary considerations, they are certainly something that might factor into why we wouldn’t want to ship thousands of gallons of Gatorade annually.”
After its first round of large-scale implementation across the country, athletic trainers and athletes noted the immediate impact on both energy and weight loss in hot conditions. Prior to Gatorade, athletes consumed salt tablets in large quantities, which led to cramping and did little to alleviate the impact of dehydration. Considering western Indiana’s tendency to crank out humid summers and sweltering early autumns, making use of Gatorade on a large scale during the busiest athletic season in college sports makes sense.
Certainly however, an implicit part of Gatorade’s success has been the continued developments in sports conditioning and athletic training. Just as Gatorade itself shifted national attention to the idea of electrolyte replenishment, so does athletic science illustrate the complexity involved in keeping athletes in prime condition, a point best illustrated by Eberman.
“We also make adjustments for lightning, cold, elevation, and hazardous playing conditions,” she said. “Given the temperature, humidity and radiant heat (all combined are called wet bulb globe temperature), we adjust clothing, equipment, time of exercise, duration of exercise, etc. It is certainly possible that we might ensure that more fluids are available given the weather, but whether that be Gatorade or water, (it’s) is likely a function of budget. Fluid and electrolyte replacement should be individualized.”
The best indicator of the brand’s success doesn’t require deep research in sports magazines or science journals, however. The strongest evidence comes from the testimonials of the athletes who rely on Gatorade throughout their athletic careers. Case in point, All-American distance runner John Mascari: “Gatorade has always been a beneficial resource to have throughout my career at Indiana State,” he said. “There are times after a 20-mile run where I crave a Gatorade more than anything. I would say Gatorade has been a great beverage to have along the way. For endurance athletes it paves the way.”
“I drink a lot of Gatorade,” adds track and field thrower Ryan Chestnut. “We lift a ton, and it really helps keep me hydrated post lifts. It’s great that have it in our weight room. It’s also nice that coaches have it for us at meets. It has helped me overall with my performance by keeping me hydrated and focused. Plus it tastes good, so that always helps.”
For his own part, Robert Cade’s personal and professional story would cover a broader landscape, including his work toward an improved understanding of kidney disease and efforts at developing an advanced football helmet using hydraulics. But it’s his hallmark beverage that has cemented his name in sports health history.
And when the next bevy of Sycamore athletes congregates on their fields and floors, the sweat rolling off their brows, it will be Cade’s 50-year-old concoction that will recharge them.