Sex, sports and celibacy: Does doing the nasty really do an athlete in?
The belief that ‘fooling around’ before a sports event can kill an athlete’s chances of winning has been around for centuries
Here’s how the conversation between the legendary boxing champion Rocky Balboa and his hard-nosed trainer Mickey Goldmill goes in that classic movie.
Mickey [chasing away autograph-hunting pretty girls enamoured by Rocky]: “Get outta here! Don’t ever interrupt me when I am conducting my business. Move your little chicken asses out of here. “
[To Rocky] Listen, kid. You...You lay off that pet shop dame. (Referring to Rocky’s girl Adrian). WOMEN WEAKEN LEGS.
Rocky: But, I really like her y’know.
Mickey: THEN LET HER TRAIN YA!
Rocky: Ok, then. No more foolin’ around.
(Goes back to punching bags)
This fear of sex is not just the stuff of blockbuster fiction. The belief that ‘fooling around’ before a sports event can kill an athlete’s chances of winning has been around for centuries. It stretches as far back as 444 B.C when philosopher Plato counseled Olympic competitors to avoid sexual intimacy before the big event.
Every Football World Cup has its ‘sex in the camps’ narrative. The question will be asked in press conferences, it will be discussed in team meetings and of course it will make it to the newspapers.
“There will be no sex in Brazil,” Safet Susic, the coach of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s national soccer team told reporters before the FIFA World Cup last year. “I am not interested what the other coaches do. This is not a holiday trip. We are there to play football at the World Cup.”
Bosnian players weren’t alone in going celibate during the World Cup either. Russia, Chile and Mexico forbade all action off the football field during the month long extravaganza in Brazil. Quartz, incidentally, took it upon itself to put out an explainer; as to how many of the 32 teams banned sex, how many did not and who are all the ones with complicated rules. (USA gave its players a free pass while France allowed sex only with wives and fiancés!)
This abstinence tradition is particularly strong in power sports such as boxing, where aggression is seen as an important ingredient to success, notes a report in the National Geographic. Muhammad Ali, arguably the greatest boxer of all time, abstained from intercourse for six weeks before his major bouts.
Rocky Balboa, it would seem, is not alone when it comes to making sexual sacrifices.
But is there any scientific credence to it?
Gayatri Vartak, a sport psychologist in India recognised by the British Psychological Society and co-founder of Samiksha, says that the views on this issue span the spectrum. As an athlete herself, having also represented India in junior and senior badminton tournaments across the world, she believes there is no hard and fast rule about sexual indulgence.
“There is no unidimensional way to answer the question of sex before events affecting athletes’ performances. Certain athletes prefer to be by themselves, have their own rigorous training rountine pre-events, abstain from drinking and hook-ups. But certain others find socializing before an event relaxing, they go out for a drink, see if they can meet someone. Both type of athletes exist and it’s hard to say one group is more successful than the other,” Vartak says.
Indeed, a study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that there is not enough evidence to prove sexual activity affects performance, at least, physiologically speaking. But what about psychological effects?
Dr. Prabhu Vyas, a sexologist based in Mumbai, feels that sex may be more about the mind rather than the body. “If athletes are too anxious the night before an event, then sex has the ability to relax them. I have known people who resort to masturbation to release tension before sporting events. For athletes who are already relaxed there is not much interest in sex the night before. A good night's sleep is all they need,” he says. Prabhu also notes that the act of having intercourse is not as physically draining as it is made out to be and that the calorie exertion is minimal for both sexes.
History offers no guide either. For every Muhammad Ali, there is a George Best – the supremely talented Northern Irish footballer and a Manchester United legend from the 60’s who was notorious for his escapades off the field. “I used to go missing a lot – Miss Canada, Miss United Kingdom, Miss World!” and “I gave up alcohol and women in 1969, it was the worst 20 minutes of my life” are just two of his many quotes that are now part of football folklore.
Similarly, in the adrenaline-filled glitzy and glamorous world of motor-racing, champions come in all varieties. The rivalry between British maverick racer James Hunt and the Austrian Nicki Lauda – both of them world champions in the Formula One circuit - is a study in contrast.
Lauda, on the one hand, was a meticulous trainer who worked on his racing skills even during off-seasons, and was a dedicated (if sometimes anxious) husband. Hunt, on the other hand, lived the playboy-lifestyle soaking in the fame, hanging out with super models (even marrying one only to realise he was not the marrying-kind) and famously once said that he had sex 20 minutes before entering the cockpit of his car once. Grapevine has it that he has slept with more than 5000 women during his racing days!
“I tend to enjoy myself first. The sum of life needs to be pleasure. What's the point of having a million of medals, cups and planes if you don't have any fun? And how is that winning?” is a quote from the 2013 movie Rush, a near-faithful reproduction of their rivalry.
Karun Chandhok, one of India’s favourite racing sons and only the second Indian to have made it to the glamorous world of Formula One, says there are more Nicki Laudas than James Hunts in the racing worlds these days.
“To keep it in context, I think the racing world is a much different place now compared to the 70’s. The amount of money that the sponsors and teams invest in the racers means that a lot more professionalism is expected,” Chandok says over the telephone from his residence in UK. “Drivers these days are less and less the playboy-type and you’ll often see most of us cycling up and down the mountains.”
But he agreed ultimately it comes to a personal choice. “I have seen Lewis Hamilton party it up before races. You can see him with supermodels around him, and he leads a rock-and-roll lifestyle. He is a guy who puts himself out there. Does that make him any less of a champion? Absolutely not,” says Karun.
Karun, however, is from the Nicki Lauda school of racing, loath to spoil his chances of having a good race by indulging in some nookie before events. “I hate the party-life. I prefer to spend time with my wife and family after the race is over, sit down for a drink, maybe cook. I have been in races when I was single, I have taken my girlfriend out when we were dating and I still take her out after our marriage. But, personally, I never the felt the need to expend myself before an event,” says Karun.
Gayatri Vartak argues that athletes these days have too much attention on them and are as seen as role models in the public eye, and so tend to play it safe. “If having your loved one around before an event calms you down, then there is no better support system for an athlete. I mean, if having Anushka in the stands helps Virat Kohli perform well, why make rules to stop it?” says Gayatri.
But it's not just about the men, right?
If the jury is still out for men, at least some experts have definitively weighed in on the issue of women. Noted Israeli physician Alexander Olshanietzky is all in favour of sex before a big day for female athletes.
"We believe that a woman gets better results in sports competition after orgasm," he was quoted as saying in 1996, before the Atlanta games by this BBC report. "Generally, it's true of high jumpers and runners. The more orgasms, the more chances of winning a medal.”
“Coaches generally tell their athletes to abstain before competition. In the case of women, that's the wrong advice," he said.
Every four years, when the Olympics come around, there is the inevitable news report on how many condoms were distributed in the athletes village that year. A number, by the way, that is constantly on the rise – starting from just over 8000 in the 1988 Seoul Games to over 150,000 in London 2012. And it’s worth remembering these are athletes who spend years training for that big day which comes once in four years.
As Karun says, “At the end of the day, there is no hard and fast rule to be successful. It’s what keeps you happy that matters. A happier sportsperson is a better performing sportsperson.”
And just maybe it's not about the sex itself. As former New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel once said: “It’s not the sex that wrecks these guys, it’s staying up all night looking for it.”
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