It is perhaps the oldest and most fundamental question in the whole of sport: does sex affect your sporting performance? After exhaustive research, all of it of an academic kind, OSM comes up with some answers.
The question has again been raised, this time with regard to the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Favourites New Zealand have vowed to go without special cuddles for however long they remain in the tournament. The All Blacks have conspired methods to lose each World Cup since 1987, despite being indisputably the best team in the world throughout most of this period. It pains me to admit this being an Australian, but despite brief periods of dominance by the Wallabies and the Springboks, and a very timely peak by England in 2003, the All Blacks are always the team to beat.
So, the latest Kiwi strategy to grab hold of the Cup is to lay off the loving. But is there any scientific basis to this? Does sex really have an effect on your physical sporting performance, or is this a psychological tactic to have the players' minds ready on game day?
It is certainly not a new theory. Before the Olympics in Athens 2004, hundreds of athletes pledged not to indulge, however even more took the opportunity to do the exact opposite. 130,000 condoms and 30,000 packets of lubricant were made available to the athletes, and in Sydney, athletes had a quota of three condoms a day - and this did not meet demand! This is no real surprise if you think about the Olympic village atmosphere - thousands of very fit, attractive, young and confident males and females from all over the world, probably up for anything without a care in the world once their events were over. Perhaps this was something like a massive backpacker hostel where everyone was rich and attractive without the dodgy old local trying to pick up the Contiki tourists.
Do those who do abstain have a performance advantage? Love him or hate him (I think he's great), WBA Super-Middleweight champion Anthony Mundine is one of Australia's best athletes. However, Mundine abstained for 10 weeks before his first world title fight against Sven Ottke, and we know what happened (Mundine was knocked out in the 10th round). I can not find any reports of Ottke abstaining.
One of the more amusing sex/sport anecdotes is the banning of former US 100 m champion and 1992 Olympic Bronze Medallist, Dennis Mitchell for showing high levels of testosterone. He had originally escaped ban within the US after claiming that his high levels were a result of having sex at least four times the night before and drinking five bottles of beer. The IAAF overturned this decision and banned him for 2 years.
There is no conclusive evidence that sex the night before an event can have an effect either way on your physical sporting performance, despite what Rocky Balboa's trainer Mickey said, "Women weaken legs."
"There are two possible ways sex before competition could affect performance," said Ian Shrier, a sports medicine specialist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada to National Geographic.
"First, it could make you tired and weak the next day. This has been disproved. The second way is that it could affect your psychological state of mind. This has not been tested."
There is a common perception that ejaculation draws testosterone from the body. Actually, it seems the reverse may be true, as testosterone levels rise in men during sex. Higher testosterone levels are good for explosive sports such as boxing or 100 m sprinting - perhaps Mitchell was telling the truth, and perhaps Mundine should rethink his strategy.
Most scientists also now think that the actual act of sex does not really tire you out physically - it only burns around 50 calories, depending on how you do it of course. What might be bad for you is if you stay up all night and deprive yourself of sleep, or if it was getting drunk that got you into bed in the first place.
Sex can also be relaxing, but the actual physical relaxation post-sex does not last into the next day. Indeed, perhaps sex with the wrong person could make you more agitated the next day. And whether or not being relaxed is a good thing for sport is another question. Certainly, some elite athletes take caffeine pills before a match, and this caused quite a stir in Australia when the then Wallabies captain George Gregan admitted as much. The effects of "legal drugs" such as caffeine would far outweigh the much milder effects of sex the night before.
I suspect the effect, if there is any, is physiological and differs greatly from athlete to athlete. By locking out partners from their hotel rooms, the All Blacks are creating a very tight team environment which may raise their performance. It is not so much the banning of sex, more the banning of non-team members, from their lives. That said, the partners are permitted to stay in the same hotel, if not the same room, and so there may be much sneaking through hallways at midnight. The strategies concerning partners on team trips varies from team to team, with the Australian cricket team now allowing partners to stay with the players. Different levels of personal autonomy work better for different teams.
There may be some difference here between the sexes. Israeli scientist Alexander Olshanietzky has said that women compete better after orgasm, especially high jumpers and runners. So if you are a female competitor, you can always use the argument on an unwilling partner, "it's for good of the country!"
For what it's worth, I'm no international sportsman, but I found that my cricket performance was always best after having enough coffee to make Alex Watson's effort look tiny (I somehow didn't realise my peculator was making my coffee 6 times the normal strength...). I was a fair shire batsman with a hundred and a couple of fifties under my belt in my late teens before sex - and more to the point, late nights and beer - played any part in my life. Nowadays, I struggle! But sport is a mind game, and as you get older, different factors weigh more heavily in your life, and standing around all day in the Australian sun doesn't quite hold the excitement that it used to! I suspect that all sport is like this. If you think that sex before a game is going to help you, then it will. The physical effects are most likely negligible, but if you are happy and confident, or feel loved by a partner, then you will perform better. This is how much of alternative medicine works. And if you are ensconced in your team environment before the game, as all professional teams are, and going through the physical preparations, then the physical effects of sex the night before are non-existant.
If, however, it made you happy and confident, or cranky and disappointed, that's when the effects might kick in.
The podcast can be found here - included are some very candid opinions from sports-people.
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Who was the first to offer an opinion on the subject? Pliny the Elder, the Roman historian writing in Natural History in AD 77 was probably the first to address this crucial issue. ‘Athletes when sluggish are revitalised by love-making,’ he wrote, ‘and the voice is restored from being gruff and husky.’
Has that been the received wisdom ever since? Not at all. Those eminently sensible Victorians took the opposite view. They believed that a loss of semen caused a corresponding loss of health and vitality.
What about today? It depends who you ask. In 1999, researchers at the University of L’Aquila in Italy proved that testosterone levels in men rise after an increase in sexual activity. ‘So if a sportsman needs to be more aggressive it’s better to have sex,’ said Dr Emmanuele Jannini.
So the Italians are always up for it. What about the British? Typically pragmatic. Nick Fellows, of the British Olympic Medical Centre, told OSM that as far as the centre was concerned there was no official advice on the subject, it was up to the individual. This is consistent with the view of Craig Sharp, the first director of BOMC. He did a study between 1980 and 1983 which found no difference to performance either way, a conclusion which resulted in him being nominated as Man of the Year in Italy in 1983.
But not everyone agrees with the Italians. Certainly not. Take Dr Pompilu Popescu, the Romanian national football team doctor at Euro 2000. He told his squad about the theory involving the ox and the bull. The ox was calm because he had been castrated, whereas the bull was agitated because of the hormones surging around his body. Presumably it was a theory the squad didn’t want taken to its logical conclusions. Is Dr Popescu’s view a common one? It seems to be. Certainly Festus Onigbinde, Nigeria’s coach for this summer’s World Cup, concurred. ‘My players must get themselves prepared spiritually and this can be best achieved through total abstinence from women,’ he said before the tournament. ‘They cannot afford to be distracted at such a critical period because women are agents of distraction.’
And did it work? Not really. Nigeria didn’t qualify for the second round and Onigbinde has since been sacked.
What was their problem? We can’t be sure. Maybe some clue was given by Clemens Westerhof, one of Onigbinde’s predecessors as Nigeria boss. ‘It’s not the sex which tires out young players,’ Westerhof sighed, ‘it’s the staying up all night looking for it.’
And what do the players think? Most of them are up for it, so to speak. Certainly the Brazilian striker Romario is. ‘Good strikers can only score goals when they have had good sex on the night before a match,’ he said. And George Best agreed. ‘I certainly never found it had any effect on my performance,’ he said. ‘Maybe best not the hour before, but the night before makes no odds.’
An hour before? What made him say that? Legend has it that Best was discovered having sex just an hour before Man United’s FA Cup semi-final with Leeds in 1970. And how did he play? Terribly. ‘I had my normal nightmare against Leeds,’ he wrote in his autobiography Blessed. ‘Their players had also got wind of what had gone on in the hotel and Johnny Giles had a go at me on the field about it. I should have made him pay when I had the chance to score the winner but I fell over the ball.’
Do all footballers agree? Not quite all. Arsenal’s Freddie Ljungberg says that having sex the night before a match made his legs feel like concrete. What about other sportsmen, athletes for instance? Again there is a disparity. For Linford Christie sex was a definite no-no. ‘Not having sex makes you more aggressive. You need that aggression,’ he said. But the great Bob Beamon claimed that the only time he had sex immediately before a long jump competition was on the eve of his world record-shattering performance at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The record stood for 23 years.
Does it matter in the more sedate sports, like cricket? Not according to Simon Hughes, the former Middlesex player and now a Channel 4 analyst. ‘I’d say pre-match sex helped more than it hindered,’ he has said. ‘I took six wickets and bowled out Zimbabwe to win a match for Middlesex the night after a dalliance with a Harare hairdresser, and enjoyed similar success during a four-day fling with a Birmingham nurse.’
Which sportsman is most preoccupied with sex? Jackie Stewart, in his heyday, was a contender. The great racing driver certainly sounded eerily like of Swiss Tony from The Fast Show when, in 1972, he described the art of cornering thus: ‘Cornering is like bringing a woman to a climax. Both you and the car must work together. You start to enter the area of excitement at the corner, you set up a pace which is right for the car and after you’ve told it it is coming along with you, you guide it along at a rhythm which has, by now, become natural.’ Steady on Jackie.
And which sportsman is least likely to have sex before the event? Boxers, probably. Rocky Marciano would excuse himself from the marital bed for months before a big bout; while Muhammad Ali, was said to abstain for at least six weeks before a fight. Primo Carnera went further still. Concerned about the effects of lust, the Italian heavyweight used to wrap a rubber band around his penis when he went to bed.
Is it different for women? Well, the Israeli scientist Alexander Olshanietzky has said women compete better after orgasm, especially high jumpers and runners. That didn’t persuade Suzanne Dando, former British Olympic gymnast. ‘I certainly never had sex before performing,’ she said. ‘I was a teenager and a virgin in my prime. I went out with boys but they were always a secondary interest. I was very fearful about getting pregnant. I’d worked too hard to risk it, so I abstained from sex. Personally I feel pretty exhausted after making love.’
What about sex during an event? There isn’t scope for it in most sports, but the experience of snooker star Paul Hunter suggests it can help. Trailing 6-2 to Fergal O’Brien in the final of the 2001 B&H Masters, Hunter retired to the Wembley Plaza Hotel with girlfriend Lindsey Fell. ‘Paul’s manager told me he was under pressure and that I should relax him,’ explained Lindsey. ‘So I stripped down to my lacy g-string and bra. We made love and he didn’t think about the tournament for a second.’ Hunter returned and notched up four centuries in six frames to win the final 10-9.