By Francois Trudeau and Roy J. Shephard
Soccer has recently been commended as a means of enhancing health in adults with cardiac risk factors [1, 2]. However, a re-reading of the “Book of Fate”  suggests that this approach was not exactly news to the French satirical author Voltaire (1694-1778). In this story, Zadig is a Babylonian philosopher who, in his travels, stumbles upon a group of women who are seeking a basilisk, a rare and legendary beast that is king of the serpents. The local physician has suggested this animal can cure Ogul, their Lord and Master. Zadig offers Ogul an alternative remedy, in return for the freedom of the beautiful Astarte:
“Zadig, again addressing himself to Ogul, said; my Basilisk, Sir… is not to be drest or eaten; but all its Virtues must penetrate your whole Fabrick, thro’ your Pores; I have inclos’d my never-failing Sudorific in a Bladder, full-blown and carefully cover’d with the softest Leather. You must kick this Bladder, Sir, once a Day about your Hall for a whole Hour together, with all the Vigour and Activity you possibly can. This Medicine must be repeated every Morning…., Upon your due Observance of the Regimen I shall put you under, I doubt not, but with the Blessing of Heav’n on my honest Endeavours, I shall give you ample Demonstration of my being an Adept in Physick. Ogul, upon making the first Experiment, was ready to expire for want of Breath, and thought he should die with the Fatigue. The second Day did not prove altogether so irksome, and he slept much better at Night than he had done before. In short, our Doctor in about eight Days Time, perform’d an absolute Cure. His Patient was as brisk, active and gay, as One in the Bloom of his Youth.
Now, Sir, said Zadig, I’ll…. disclose to you the important Secret. You have play’d at Foot-ball these eight Days successively; and you have liv’d all that Time, within the Bounds of Sobriety and Moderation. Know, Sir, that there is no such Animal in Nature as a Basilisk; that Health is to be secur’d by Temperance and Exercise…
Ogul’s physician was very reluctant to let such an “anti-medicinale” cure eclipse his own reputation. He plotted with “a set of petty doctors and apothecaries” to poison Zadig, but the latter avoided his planned death with a “rendez-vous gallant.”
Voltaire is known for a less than stellar opinion of the Enlightenment physician, described as one who :
«pours drugs of which he knows little into a body of which he knows less.”
However, Voltaire himself seems to have grasped the health value of 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity per day.
2. Randers MB, Petersen J, Andersen LJ et al. Short-term street soccer improves fitness and cardiovascular health status of homeless men. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2011; Sep 29. [Epub ahead of print]
3. de Voltaire, F-MA. Zadig, ou la destinée (Zadig, or the Book of Fate, an Oriental history). 1747/2008, Chapter XV, The Basilisk. (English translation). Boston, Mass : MobileReference.
4. Editor. Medicine a science. Eclectic Medical Journal (Ohio State Medical Association, Worthington, Ohio) 1871; 31 : 140-141.
Prof Francois Trudeau – Department of Physical Activity Sciences, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières Trois-Rivières , P.Q., Canada.
Prof Roy J. Shephard – Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON.