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Just Doin' It

Health Wanted


Published February 4, 2004 at 5:00 p.m.

Is there a connection between sex and sports? The two seem to go hand in hand -- if the tabloids are any indication. Wilt Chamberlain claimed to have bedded more than 20,000 women. That's 1.2 per day. Hundreds of pro basketball, football and baseball players have entangled themselves in sex scandals since the dawn of peach baskets, pigskin and long shafts of wood.

Oddly, the issue of abstinence is of particular interest to athletes -- specifically, how and when sex benefits performance on the field. Everyone, from pros to weekend warriors, has an opinion on the subject. "I've believed sex was helpful before an event for decades," says a Killington cyclist. "Gets the aggressive male hormones flowing, is my theory."

His theory is actually much older than mere decades. "Athletes when sluggish are revitalized by lovemaking," Pliny the Elder wrote in Natural History nearly 2000 years ago, before his hot date with Vesuvius. "And the voice is restored from being gruff and husky."

Over time, though, Pliny's words were forgotten, especially by the Victorians, who believed that semen depletion was a recipe for malaise and lethargy. Instead of refreshing themselves with a romp, sportsmen opted for lolling by the sea or tramping about the countryside. In the late 1800s, a group called the Muscular Christians advocated "spermatic economy."

Throughout the 20th century, athletes continued to accept and even embrace a certain period of abstinence before a major competition. Picture Robert De Niro pouring ice down his shorts in Raging Bull. "You can only play this game once," coach Mike Ditka supposedly told the Chicago Bears the night before the Super Bowl. "If your wives and girlfriends can't wait, tell them to take a cold shower." The Minnesota Vikings took the "no-girls-allowed" policy one step further, sleeping in separate quarters from their wives before four Super Bowls.

It became a ritual for the wife of former Broncos quarterback John Elway. "No sex for John Friday or Saturday," she was once quoted as saying. "He gets it all Sunday night, after the game." Brazilian soccer player Ronaldo employed the same "dessert-later" philosophy during the 2002 World Cup. "Winning the World Cup is more important," he told ESPN. "I will have sex in a few moments, but the World Cup happens only every four years."

Muhammad Ali floated like a butterfly for up to six weeks at a time, so that he could sting like a bee in the boxing ring. "If you don't get it for a while," he said to reporters, "you get mean and angry, and it makes you a great warrior."

Even if your sport doesn't involve snarling, it was cool to spurn sperm. British husband-and-wife curlers Ewan and Fiona McDonald swore off sex during the Salt Lake Olympic Winter Games. Fellow Olympian Ronny Ackerman, a ski jumper from Germany, flew solo for 389 days before arriving in Utah. And while many marathoners choose to carbo-load before the 26.2, former world record-holder Khalid Khannouchi passed on the protein. "We don't have sex -- not even a week before," his wife Sandra told Reuters. "After the race is over we have a party. But not before."

The actual results on this no-sex score are spotty, however. The Vikings lost all four of those Super Bowls, and Ewan McDonald curled to seventh place in a three-way tie. Ronaldo is of two minds when it comes to going without. "Sex a couple of hours before the match is the key to success," he told a Spanish TV show a few months after the World Cup. "The man has to be rather passive and just enjoy the experience. This relaxes him and makes him happy, which in turn gives him a whole load of energy." German swimmer Franzisca van Almsick, who has graced the cover of Maxim, promotes herself as "more than a great swimmer" on her homepage and claims to warm up for a meet by having sex -- in the pool.

What gives? Perhaps because they started the rumor, British researchers have spent a good deal of the last two decades trying to figure out if abstinence is all it's cracked up to be. In the 1980s, a study in Wales revealed that men who had sex twice a week were half as likely to suffer heart attacks as those who played "hide the hot dog" once a month. "The association between frequency of orgasm and mortality…deserves further investigation to the same extent," wrote the researchers in the British Medical Journal. "Interventions programs could also be considered, perhaps based on the exciting ‘At least five a day' campaign aimed at increasing fruit and vegetable consumption -- although the numerical imperative may have to be adjusted."

A similar study of Scottish blokes found that those who make love more live longer. If sex is good for you, British researchers reasoned, it can make you a better athlete.

Shortly before the London Marathon, sponsors decided to spice things up by surveying the top 2000 entrants from the previous year on their various habits. Eight percent revealed that running had harmed their sex life, while 30 percent claimed to have received a boost in bed from pounding the pavement. Plus, those who indulged in a little frolic before racing turned out to have faster finishing times. Said race organizers, "Every competitor planning to build a last-minute lovemaking session into their training program will run faster than those who don't."

The findings failed to turn the streets of London into a giant orgy, but they did open athletes' minds -- and legs. The research backed up one study conducted in 1999 by Italian researchers at the University of L'Aquila. They found that testosterone levels spike after sex, making the athlete more combative. "It's a matter of the character of the athlete," Emmanuele Jannini told Reuters. "If he needs to be more aggressive, it's better to have sex."

But Simon Hughes is also convinced, and he plays cricket -- not exactly a blood sport. "I'd say pre-match sex helped more than it hindered," he told The Observer Sport Magazine. "I took six wickets and bowled out Zimbabwe to win a match for Middlesex the night after dalliance with a Harare hairdresser and enjoyed similar success during a four-day fling with a Birmingham nurse."

There are other reasons to hold off, though. "I don't think I've ever had sex before I race," says an avid skier and rider from Rutland. "My mind just isn't into it. I'm too focused on the race and too nervous. I could see how some people might have sex to relax, but I guess I'm not Zen enough."

Others see sports as a sideline; no matter how big the event, it doesn't compare with the main event. "A while back, I decided to make sex the priority and competition the elective," says another Vermont cyclist. "It's a whole lot more fun."