By David Whitford

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Sue Wellington, president of the Gatorade division of Quaker Oats, doesn't limit her Gatorade intake to when she's hot and sweaty. She drinks it all the time: with meals, at work, while watching TV. She started her kids on Gatorade when they were still drinking from baby bottles. "Religious" is one way she describes the "whole body" experience of imbibing Gatorade; "orgasmic" is another. "If you took a knife and slit her wrists," says Jim Doyle, her former boss at Quaker, "she would bleed Gatorade." That could well be true. The woman's eyes aren't just violet; they're the precise color of Gatorade Frost Riptide Rush.

Wellington's passion is extreme (and obviously fanned by self-interest), but it's not unique. In the land of sports drinks, Gatorade is king--a $1.5 billion brand with an 80% market share. Neither Coke's Powerade (11%, according to Beverage Digest) nor Pepsi's All Sport (7%) comes close. Gatorade prevails among athletes in the NFL, the NBA, Major League Baseball, and Nascar. It's what Michael drinks (his ten-year, $18 million deal expires in 2001). More to the point, it's the fourth-best-selling nonalcoholic beverage in convenience stores, and among the top 50 brands--food, drink, or otherwise--sold in supermarkets.

Gatorade isn't just a sports drink anymore. It's modern snake oil: A reputed cure for the common cold, menstrual cramps, diarrhea, and hangovers; relief for women in labor; bait for roach traps; and a key ingredient in dozens of exotic mixed drinks, including Green Crap (green Gatorade and gin), Stupid Juice (Gatorade and vodka), and something called a Cincinutti: 1 1/2 ounces of lemon-lime Gatorade, a half ounce of gin, a quarter teaspoon of ground cinnamon, and a sardine. What's amazing about Gatorade's success isn't so much that Quaker is the company behind it, although considering the Snapple debacle, that's a puzzle. It's how any marketer, no matter how brilliant, could even get to first base with such a vile fluid. Gatorade looks like something Sam would serve with green eggs and ham. If you left some in a plastic cup at the doctor's office, they'd cap it and send it to the lab. Gatorade has three times more salt than Coke, half the sugar, and no fizz. Orgasmic? Maybe for Wellington.

Gatorade was developed in the early 1960s by Dr. Michael Cade at the University of Florida, who was trying to rehydrate the Florida Gators football team. An early version tasted so like seawater that players promptly threw it up. But then Dr. Cade's wife, Mary, suggested cutting it with lemon juice, and Gatorade as we know it was born.

For a while, Dr. Cade brewed Gatorade in his lab and sold it in small batches to football coaches. Then, in 1967, he sold the rights to Stokely-Van Camp, the famed pork-and-beans marketer, and signed a royalty agreement. That piqued the interest of the University of Florida. A flurry of lawsuits ensued, culminating in a settlement that today divides the royalties--80% for the Gatorade Trust (Dr. Cade, his former lab assistants, and their heirs) and 20% for the university. It's a light skim, less than 2%. Still, after Quaker bought Stokely in 1983 and took Gatorade national, the numbers started bubbling. Last year's total payout to all parties was about $25 million.

Quaker has spent lots of money over the years trying to prove that Gatorade really works, and it has succeeded, sort of. "There's no doubt that there are circumstances in which carbohydrates, electrolytes, and water"--the main ingredients in all sports drinks--"are important to athletes," says Lawrence Armstrong, an environmental physiologist at the University of Connecticut. But here's the catch: Unless you're in the habit of running without stopping for at least an hour or playing two hours of tackle football, you'll rarely be in such circumstances. In that case, Gatorade is no better than water--and possibly worse if your goal is to lose weight. A person who quaffs a quart of Gatorade (200 calories) after light exercise could end up with what Armstrong calls "a positive caloric balance."

All of which, increasingly, is beside the point, as Gatorade seeks to expand its franchise beyond sports drinks into a category known as NARB ("nonalcoholic refreshment beverages"). NARB is 118 billion quarts a year, about 15% of which, according to a Gatorade spokesperson, is consumed on "hot, sweaty, or active occasions." That's a vast market--still dominated by tap water, by the way--and Gatorade sees huge potential.

"The average person drinks Gatorade once every eight days," says Quaker's Wellington. "Once in eight days could become once in seven, once in six, three times in one...." Her eyes flash. "They could drink it like me!"

--David Whitford