Several of snooker’s leading stars are turning vegan to help improve their health and fitness on the baize. Ivan Hirschowitz reports…
Back in the 1980s, snooker was the biggest sport in Britain. Yes, bigger than football. Readers of a certain age will remember the epic 1985 World Championship final between Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor, which was watched by 18.5 million viewers – one of the highest ever television audiences in the UK.
It’s fair to say that, back then, snooker was not a healthy sport. Players like Alex Higgins and ‘Big’ Bill Werbeniuk usually had a cigarette in one hand and an alcoholic drink in the other as they watched their opponent potting balls at the table.
But snooker has changed beyond all recognition over the past three decades. For a start, while it might not attract the same TV audiences in the UK, it has become a global sport, massively popular in the Far East with viewing figures in China alone into the hundreds of millions.
And backstage at tournaments, players are far more likely to be sharing organic bananas and apples than pints of lager and packets of ciggies.
Most of the top players consider themselves cue-wielding athletes.
Ronnie O’Sullivan, who remains the best player in the world having turned 40 last year, is a keen long distance runner and places a high emphasis on fitness.
Finding the nearest gyms and running routes are priorities for many players when they arrive at a new venue. And a growing number of them have turned to a vegan diet for both health and ethical reasons.
The leader of snooker’s vegan pack is Peter Ebdon, the 2002 World Champion, who experienced an epiphany five years ago soon after his father, Michael, died of cancer.
“My father’s death woke me up to a lot of aspects of life that you can gain control over through your diet and lifestyle,” said London-born Ebdon, age 46. “Someone sent me a link to the film Earthlings on YouTube. I realised I was one of the billions of people who turn a blind eye to the way animals are treated, and I became a vegan overnight.
“I have never looked back and since then I have done a huge amount of research. I’m very much an advocate of the works of T. Colin Campbell and Dr David Klein who have accurately tested and described the benefits of cutting out meat and dairy.
“Before turning vegan I was addicted to cola, I was drinking up to 20 cans a day. I had liver cirrhosis, probably caused by all the sugar, caffeine and chemicals I was putting into my body, and I was probably well down the road towards liver cancer. Six weeks after turning vegan I went back to my doctor for a blood test and the results were nearly back to normal.
“Now I feel fitter and healthier than ever. Snooker might not be the most physical sport, but stamina is undoubtedly a huge advantage, particularly in the longer tournaments like the World Championship, not least because you have to mentally focus for long periods. I have been delighted to see other players turning vegan. I always tell them not to listen to what I say, but to go and do their own research and then make their own decisions.”
Neil Robertson, another former World Champion, is among those who have followed Ebdon’s example. Tall, lean and blonde with an Australian accent – despite living in Cambridge for the past 10 years – Robertson looks more like a surfer than a snooker player. But he’s another who believes that being strong in body and mind is absolutely vital to his profession.
“I want to prolong my career as much as possible and the vegan diet will help with that,” said the 34-year-old from Melbourne, currently ranked seventh in the world. “I feel really good physically and I don’t get tired during matches any more. It’s a lot easier than I thought it would be. I used to love destroying an absolutely massive box of Maltesers. Initially it was hard to see them in a supermarket and keep walking, but I’ve got used to that now. There’s a lot more organic food and a lot more vegan-friendly products now than there were 10 years ago.
“Learning what takes place in the slaughter houses isn’t great. Most people turn a blind eye. They don’t really want to know how it is actually done – and I was one of those. But not any more.”
For one of the sport’s young guns, Anthony McGill, it’s the ethical aspect of veganism, which led him to make the change last year. “It hasn’t made me a better snooker player, but I couldn’t go back to eating meat now,” said the likeable 25-year-old Glaswegian, who recently won his first major title at the Indian Open. “My diet isn’t perfect, I still eat crisps. But mainly it’s fruit, vegetables, rice and pasta, and I feel so much better now, I feel amazing. It started one day when I was watching YouTube. I should have been looking at snooker videos, but instead I came across something which showed the conditions in slaughterhouses and the pain that animals go through. I hadn’t really thought about the link between what was on my plate and how it got there. I decided I couldn’t think of myself as a good person and still be a part of that. That was enough motivation for me and I haven’t eaten meat since.
“Peter Ebdon makes damn sure everyone knows about those kind of issues. I used to see him at breakfast eating papaya and talking about the benefits of veganism and I thought he was off his head. Now I realise it’s everyone else who’s off their heads.”
Q&A with Peter Ebdon
Nicknamed ‘The Force’ and renowned for his determination and resilience, Ebdon has been on snooker’s professional tour for 25 years and has won nine world ranking titles – only eight players in history have won more. His greatest moment came at the 2002 World Championship when he beat Stephen Hendry 18-17 in an epic final. He has been a vegan since 2011.
Peter, what does your daily diet look like?
For breakfast I have porridge with organic oat milk and five or six sliced bananas. That gives me a fantastic start to the day. After that I’ll generally eat fruit and drink smoothies throughout the day and perhaps a bowl of whole grain pasta. Some people say being vegan must be boring because you can’t go out for meals, but they are so wrong. I went for a curry with friends recently and had chana masala (chickpeas) and sag aloo (spinach and potato) with garlic and mint rice, and it was all delicious.
Snooker is huge in China and you have to travel there often, what challenges does that present?
It’s not easy because you can’t take fruit in. I found that out when I tried to bring about 5 kilos of fruit and they took it off me at the airport. But you can still find the right things to eat in the hotels. We recently had a tournament in Yushan, which is a fairly remote part of China, and there was no western food. But myself and Ali Carter survived for the whole week on steamed rice, broccoli and carrots. We got a bit bored of that towards the end but Ali won the tournament so it worked for him!
You have been something of a mentor to Ali, how much advice have you given him?
He has had Crohn’s disease for 13 years but I gave him a book called Self Healing Colitis and Crohn’s by Dr David Klein and since he has followed the guidance in the book he has got a lot better. He still eats meat occasionally but he has cut out dairy and overall his diet is much improved and that is helping his health and his snooker.
What other methods do you use to stay fit?
I used to do a lot of swimming but had to give that up because of back problems. Then I started learning about Reiki and now my back is cured and I am able to give treatments myself using healing energy. Reiki and the vegan diet have made a huge difference to my life.
You were once forced to remove a logo for an alternative cancer treatment – what happened?
It was at the 2012 World Championship. I was playing Ronnie O’Sullivan in the first round and I wore a logo on my waistcoat for Gerson Therapy. Max Gerson was treating cancer by using a vegan diet 80 years ago. But the 1939 Cancer Act prohibits the advertising of any cancer remedy so I was forced to take it off. Unfortunately there are a lot of powerful forces in the world, in government and business, which stop people seeing the real truth about meat and dairy products