Print and Go Back espnW.com: Commentary

Tuesday, December 4, 2012
The relationship between sex and sports

By Sarah Spain

Despite what you might see on the front pages of testosterone-fueled sports blogs, sex and sports don't really mix. At least not at the same time. Athletes may be some of the fittest and firmest folks on the planet, but when they're competing, their focus needs to be on the field of play, not on playing the field.

Of course, once the games are over, all bets are off.

That's right, word on the street is professional athletes like to get busy. The sexual escapades of pros like Wilt Chamberlain and Joe Namath are as legendary as their athletic performances, and we've all heard tales of the sex going on in the Olympic Village (this past summer the IOC distributed a staggering 150,000 condoms to athletes in London).

But one might assume Wilt and Joe's romantic interludes occurred postgame, not pregame. After all, we've always been told sex drains a man of testosterone, thereby sapping his strength and aggression. You can trace that theory all the way back to 444 B.C., when Plato said: "Olympic competitors before races should avoid sexual intimacy."

For years men have trusted Plato's position, abstaining from sex in the days -- or sometimes months -- before a big competition. Athletes of all kinds have shared their stories of celibacy, but boxers are most famous for their deliberate dry spells. From Rocky Marciano to Muhammad Ali and Oscar De La Hoya to Manny Pacquiao, fighters have been putting on a chastity belt en route to a championship belt for more than half a century.

As for the fairer sex, at least one prominent female fighter thinks Plato had it all wrong. Ronda Rousey, the No. 1 ranked female MMA fighter in the world and the first woman signed to the UFC, said last week on "Jim Rome on Showtime" that she likes to get busy in the bed before she gets nasty in the ring.

"For girls, it raises your testosterone so I try to have as much sex as possible before I fight, actually," Rousey, 25, told Rome. "Not with like everybody," she said with a laugh. "I don't, like, put out Craigslist ads or anything. But if I've got a steady I'm going to be like 'Yo, fight time's coming up.'"

Roman philosopher Pliny The Elder is in Rousey's corner for this fight. He wrote, in 77 AD: "Athletes when sluggish are revitalized by lovemaking."

So which really old dude was right?

A study from Georgia State University's Department of Psychology sides with Pliny and Rousey, stating that testosterone levels in both males and females "increased across the evening when there was intercourse and decreased when there was none."

Emmanuele A. Jannini, a professor of endocrinology at the University of L'Aquila in Italy, agrees. He says sex stimulates the production of testosterone, thus boosting aggression.

"After three months without sex, which is not so uncommon for some athletes, testosterone dramatically drops to levels close to children's levels," Jannini said. "Do you think this may be useful for a boxer?"

Rousey has clearly done her homework. She echoed both studies, telling Rome, "A lot of the studies that I've read about it have not really substantiated the claim that if you abstain from having sex for that long that it actually raises your testosterone; you actually might start producing less. I think, it's like, you can't go [have sex with] somebody that day."

The fine folks at the Cardiology Center and Medical Policlinics at University Hospital in Geneva, Switzerland, seem to agree. Their study on male athletes reported "sexual activity had no detrimental influence on the maximal workload achieved," but "the recovery capacity of an athlete could be affected if he had sexual intercourse approximately two hours before a competition event."

There are no studies yet that can accurately predict the psychological effects of pregame sex. It may be different for every athlete. One might lose focus if she hits the sheets too close to tipoff; another may be more relaxed and confident after some quality time with a special friend.

If Rousey's perfect 6-0 record in MMA is any indication, she's got it all figured out. She and her male counterparts should be just fine as long as they don't kick it too close to kickoff, suffer any sex-related injuries or spend all night at the bar looking for a suitable partner.

As Hall of Fame outfielder and manager Casey Stengel once famously said, "Being with a woman all night never hurt no professional baseball player. It's staying up all night looking for a woman that does him in."