How Ovaltine became an Olympic champion

PUBLISHED: 09:00 20 August 2016

'Ovaltine welcomes Muhammad Ali' in Birmingham during the 1971 Ovaltine tour

'Ovaltine welcomes Muhammad Ali' in Birmingham during the 1971 Ovaltine tour

Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

Never mind the fizz of Coca-Cola at Rio 2016, it was the maltiness of Ovaltine that was for many Games the official Olympic drink. Alex Burman explores the sporting links of this British favourite that was exported to the world from Herts

Muhammad Ali at a supermarket in Stretford as part of the 'Autumn tour' in 1971 to promote Ovaltine takes refuge among the tins from the eager crowdMuhammad Ali at a supermarket in Stretford as part of the 'Autumn tour' in 1971 to promote Ovaltine takes refuge among the tins from the eager crowd

Walk along any supermarket soft drinks aisle and you will find shelves of sports energy products, all jostling to persuade you that they can revitalise the body when it’s flagging or help build stamina and strength. But beyond the hype and glossy packaging, this idea is far from new.

Today, Ovaltine is best known as a soporific bedtime drink, but it was originally marketed as a vitality-giver, especially to children. Promoted also for its wholesome qualities, it went on to become the performance-boosting drink of choice at several Olympic Games during the 20th century.

And the drink was made right here in Herts, at Ovaltine’s UK base in Kings Langley, for nearly a century.

During the sweltering summer of 1948, when London played host to the 14th modern Olympic Games, Ovaltine was supplied to athletes as a performance enhancer. By the time the teams paraded at the closing ceremony on August 14, 25,000 cups of the malt drink had been consumed.

Used at the training camps of all the competing national teams in the ‘48 Olympics and the preceding two Games in Los Angeles and Berlin, Ovaltine publicity made good use of testimonials from several grateful athletic coaches. On a poster promoting ‘Ovaltine for strength, energy and performance’, one announced, ‘I have found Ovaltine the greatest help to American athletes’. While another said, ‘The successes which the team obtained prove that Ovaltine enabled them to be in excellent form’.

American advertisements from the period encouraged mothers to serve Ovaltine cold as a sort of milkshake. Whether for child or athlete, the company was keen to show that Ovaltine was made of ‘Nature’s finest foods.’

Promotional poster drawing on Ovaltine's reputation as an early sports drinkPromotional poster drawing on Ovaltine's reputation as an early sports drink

Perhaps trying to be all things to all people, by the 1970s the drink had become principally known as a bedtime soother, and the company was keen to shake off an old-fashioned image and reach to a more dynamic audience.

Searching for a figurehead for its campaign, the Ovaltine marketing team found exactly what they were looking for in boxing superstar Muhammad Ali, Olympic Gold medal winner and World Champion heavyweight. A fan of the drink since childhood, Ovaltine hoped that some of Ali’s cool, charisma and athletic prowess would help promote the drink to a new generation.

In October 1971, the most famous boxer in the world was in Sainsbury’s supermarket in Marlowes, Hemel Hempstead, signing tins of Ovaltine for delighted shoppers.

Ali’s Islamic principles had led him to turn down offers to endorse other products, but Ovaltine’s clean, wholesome image and Olympic legacy was a perfect fit. ‘I will not promote alcohol or cigarettes,’ he explained, ‘but I have honestly drunk Ovaltine since I was a little boy.’

Ali must have been pleased to receive the offer from the drink manufacturer. He had taken a pummelling from some quarters in the US after he had refused to fight in the Vietnam War in 1967 and, as a result, had been stripped of his World Heavyweight boxing title and banned from the ring. Although Ali’s boxing licence was reinstated in 1970, he had lost his former title to Joe Frazier in a thunderous 15-round fight in New York in March 1971.

So by the autumn of that year, with Ali planning a rematch with Frasier, he was happy to go on the ‘Ovaltine Autumn Tour’ of the UK.

195Os promotional poster showing the Kings Langley factory and dairy and poultry farms195Os promotional poster showing the Kings Langley factory and dairy and poultry farms

He was on fine form in the Hemel Sainsbury’s, quipping with his excited audience in his often-hilarious, always cheekily antagonistic rhyming verse, about the upcoming world title rematch, ‘After I’ve whupped Frazier into a mouse, I’ll take Ovaltine round to his house’.

After signing several hundred tins, Ali departed through a fire exit to be chauffeured to the next stop on his tour, the Kings Langley Ovaltine factory.

The site was opened in 1913 by Albert Wander, the son of a Swiss chemist who established the high nutritional value of barley malt and created what was originally called ‘Ovomaltine’. By the time of Ali’s visit, it had expanded to include two nearby farms, totalling 450 acres. As well as supplying the barley, milk and eggs needed by the factory for production, the farms featured in the company’s promotional campaigns. Daily coach tours took visitors to see for themselves the healthy animals that produced the ingredients that went into every tin of Ovaltine powder.

Muhammad Ali posed for promotional photos with staff dressed as milkmaids before going in to the factory to meet the workforce and take questions. Then it was on to a press conference at the Caledonian Hotel in St Albans, followed by a visit to Caters supermarket in Watford High Street, where Ali signed yet more Ovaltine tins for the gathered crowd, all eager to see ‘The Greatest’.

Ali’s whistle-stop British Ovaltine tour continued on to stores in several towns and cities over the following days.

Ovaltine ceased production at Kings Langley in 2002 and the factory Muhammad Ali visited has been converted to apartments. The drink is still a firm favourite here and abroad of course and is today manufactured in various countries with an expanded range of products - all still promoting the drink’s health-giving properties.

So amid the doping scandals of today’s top competitions and as you watch our best athletes at Rio, think back to when Ovaltine from Herts was the go-to performance-enhancer, loved by world beaters.

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