The Olympics of sport are also the Olympics of sex

Nothing compared to the fireworks going on inside the village.
Nothing compared to the fireworks going on inside the village.
Image: AP Photo/Julio Cortez
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One record seems almost guaranteed to be broken at each Olympic Games—the number of condoms supplied to athletes in the Olympic village. At Rio 2016, the count stands at 450,000, with 175,000 sachets of lubricant for good measure—the largest amount of contraceptives ever delivered to an Olympic Games.

The numbers have been climbing ever since they first started handing out condoms at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul. It’s the Olympics, and passions are running high. As a 2012 ESPN exposé suggested:

Olympians are young, supremely healthy people who’ve been training with the intensity of combat troops for years. Suddenly they’re released into a cocoon where prying reporters and overprotective parents aren’t allowed. Pre-competition testosterone is running high. Many Olympians are in tapering mode, full of excess energy because they’re maintaining a training diet of up to 9,000 calories per day while not actually training as hard.

Thousands of bodies, at the peak of physical fitness, isolated and stressed, pushed into a cauldron of hype for two weeks—why wouldn’t there be sex?

The long-held belief that somehow sex and professional sports shouldn’t mix is a myth that stems back to the ancient Greeks, who founded the Olympics. They believed that semen contains a divine energy and that a man’s strength could be enhanced by not ejaculating. Not only does it use up energy, it lowers aggression, while sexual frustration increases it. Dedication to your sport should be a vow of chastity, a sign of commitment. Performance in the bedroom breaks performance on the field. So save it for the field.

This myth still holds, especially in historically “manly” sports like boxing. But as far as scientists can tell, sex has hardly any drawbacks for an athlete’s performance.

Published six weeks ahead of the Rio Olympics in Frontiers in Physiology, a group of European researchers sifted through the scientific literature to find nine of the best studies conducted over the last 50 years to see the consequences of sex on athletic performance. Each had studied small groups of athletes, putting them through physical examinations the day after they’d had sex. The verdict is pretty stark:

The impact of sexual activity before a sport competition is still unclear, but most studies generally seem to exclude a direct impact of sexual activity on athletic aerobic and strength performance.

Studies found no influence of sexual intercourse on muscle strength and no significant differences in the physical workload subjects could achieve, or in mental concentration of participants. For men, there seemed to be no negative affects on testosterone levels in the blood, short or long term, and for every argument that sex decreases testosterone levels the same could be said about it increasing them.

One study noted that there might be a slight change in recovery time, but as long as the sex isn’t less than two hours before you’re due on the field, you’re probably okay, the researchers say.

After all, though sex is a workout, it’s not a strenuous one. Assuming an average of 20-30 minutes, it’s about the same as a brief run or walking up two flights of stairs, burning around 25 calories. For Olympic athletes at the peak of fitness, that should be no problem.

Does sport make you randier?

Certainly, working out is good for sex. Exercise improves blood circulation, which is good for sexual desire, as is testosterone. It also stimulates the body’s sympathetic nervous system, which has been linked to sexual arousal in women. One study of 160 male and female swimmers in their Forties and Sixties conducted by Harvard University researchers found that those taking regular swims had more frequent and enjoyable sex.

Might that explain why they need 450,000 condoms in Rio? Does being in peak physical fitness somehow make you hornier?

Yes and no. There are no direct studies on whether professional or Olympic levels of fitness increases the sex drive, says Nicola Maffulli, a professor of sports medicine at Queen Mary University of London. Real experimental studies in this field are difficult. “It would not be ethical to ask athletes to have intercourse or masturbate the day/night before a competition, and then see how they fare,” Maffulli told Quartz. “I cannot see a grant-giving agency funding such studies, and ethics [governing bodies] approving them!”

If anything, there is evidence to the contrary. “Extreme endurance exercise in males reduces the amount of testosterone, and this, if anything, may decrease libido,” he says. In women, extreme endurance exercise can lead them to miss their period, which negatively influences their levels of sex hormones and thus libido.

Psychologically, the effects of a lot of sex may actually be positive. According to a 2000 review of the scientific literature, there certainly is an “optimal level of alertness/anxiety before a competition, and a poor performance will result from either being too anxious or not alert enough.” Sex on the mind could be a distraction, but some experts think that the distraction of abstinence can do more harm.

The bigger danger is the stuff that sometimes comes with sexual activity—alcohol, smoking, sleep deprivation. But if you can be strict about that and allow yourself rest before your big sports event, a bedroom workout seems fine.

For Olympians, sex is a distraction—a good one. And unlike the ancient Greeks, now they have Tinder.