Sex and the modern Olympics

There was a stream of news stories last summer about sex and the Olympics, as the newspapers got overexcited about the idea of lots of athletes living in close quarters with each other in the Olympic village. A quick web search turns up dozens of these. Some examples:

Good news for Olympians! Sex before sport WON’T ruin your medal chances (Daily Mail)

The myths of sex before sport (BBC)

‘Sex before competing: does it boost athletes’ performance?’ (CNN)

Sex before competition won’t exhaust our Olympians: Study (ninemsn)

–and many more of the same (as well as lots of almost identical stories from previous Olympics/World Cups/Commonwealth Games etc.).

Most of these stories follow more or less the same pattern: examples of famous modern sporting abstainers–Muhammad Ali, Glen Hoddle’s England squad for the 1998 football World Cup, Sylvester Stallone in Rocky etc. etc.–sometimes combined with passing references to similar beliefs in ancient Greek athletics; then quotation of recent studies showing that there is no evidence at all for physiological side effects. Here’s one: ‘Effect of sexual activity on cycle ergometer stress test parameters, on plasmatic testosterone levels and on concentration capacity: a study in high-level male athletes performed in the laboratory’, Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 40.3 (2000): 233-9.

Sex and abstinence in ancient sport

It is absolutely right that there are ancient precedents for the idea that abstaining from sex could help athletic performance.

Aelian, Varia Historia 3.30, tells us that the athlete Cleitomachus was so abstinent that he never slept with his wife, and that he would turn away if he saw dogs mating in the street. That anecdote picks up on the standard idea of athletes as models of virtue and self-control.

In other sources, the physiological basis of the link between athletic training and sexual abstinence is made clearer. At least in some ancient medical texts loss of semen is associated with loss of strength and masculine vitality. One often quoted example is from the discussion of gonorrhea in Aretaeus, On the Causes and Symptoms of Chronic Disease 2.5, CMG 2.71, quoted in this good piece by Peter Jones in the Spectator–also from last August.

Some authors also suggest that semen production is lowered because the material the body would normally use for it is diverted to muscle-building. Plutarch, Quaestiones Convivales 8.4, 724e includes the following observation (in the course of a discussion of why palm fronds are awarded to victorious athletes, here suggesting that it is because they share the quality of sterility): ‘as for an athlete, its shapeliness uses up all its nourishment for building up the body, so that what is left for the production of seed is very little, and of poor quality’.

Of course that’s not the only side of the story: there are some cases where athletes were renowned precisely for their lack of sexual self-control. The emperor Elagabalus, in the early third century AD, famously took as his lover the athlete Aurelius Zoticus (see here for a translation of the whole lurid story from Cassius Dio 79.16, unless you’re feeling easily shocked).

How to spot a sexually active athlete

As so often, Philostratus’ Gymnasticus is one of the best places to look for the question of how these views impacted on day-to-day training:

Those who come to the gymnasium straight after sex are exposed by a greater number of indicators when they train, for their strength is diminished and they are short of breath and lack daring in their attacks, and they fade in colour in response to exertion, and they can be detected by signs of that sort; and when they strip, their hollow collar-bones give them away, their poorly structured hips, the conspicuous outline of their ribs, and the coldness of their blood. These athletes, even if we dedicated ourselves to them, would have no chance of being crowned [i.e. winning victory] in any contest. The part beneath the eyes is weak, the beating of their hearts is weak, their perspiration is weak, their sleep, which controls digestion, is weak, and their eyes glance around in a wandering fashion and indicate an appearance of lustfulness…. If an athlete has just had sex, it is better for him not to exercise. In what sense are they men, those who exchange crowns and victory announcements for disgraceful pleasures? But if they must undergo training, let them be trained, but with the caveat that their strength and their breathing must be closely observed; for these are the things which are damaged most by the pleasures of sex. (Gymnasticus 48 and 52)

Whether Philostratus’ instructions for spotting one of these people could ever be effectively applied is far from clear!–presumably this is based more on a set of assumptions about what sex is likely to do to an athlete than on experimental research.

But it does show very vividly just how much weight abstinence seems to have been given within ancient sport. It also shows just how vulnerable and precarious the athletic body was thought to be.