There's nothing hotter than a sweaty, well-muscled athlete, unless he's fresh off play at the World Cup and happens to be from England or Ghana. The only scoring those guys will be doing in the next month is on the field. Their countries reportedly have banned them from sex while they're playing in the tournament, for fear that they'll waste themselves on the wrong kind of action. The Ghanaian players aren't even allowed to invite "friends and relations,” including their wives, up to their rooms: " 'You cannot receive a female guest. It's absolutely out of the question,' says [Ghana Football Association] spokesperson Randy Abbey, who explains that 'on a match day, in the open and public areas they can receive their wives or girlfriends or relatives… after the game.' " (We're not sure what the policy is on male "friends and relations.")
This is hardly the first time that World Cup players have been put on ice. The Brazilian, Nigerian, and Ecuadorian teams have abstained in the past, and in 2006, Ukrainian coaches tried to use such a ban as a motivator: Players were separated from their ladies but told they’d be reunited with them if they reached the semi-finals. (Alas, they lost in the quarters.) Other sports—especially manly-men pursuits such as boxing and football—also have an unofficial no-sex tradition. Linford Christie, the British sprinter, and Muhammad Ali both abstained religiously before competing—the former for three days, the latter for six weeks—and the ancient Greeks may have done likewise. "The famous Greek poet and philosopher Plato was probably one of the first to raise the issue when describing the training regimen of pentathlete and Olympic champion Ikkos of Tarentum," according to the Irish Times. "He prepared for the Games' 84th Olympiad in 444 BC by eating large quantities of wild boar, cheese and goat meat, but [had] no sex for fear it could sap his strength." The Romans disagreed; Pliny the Elder wrote in AD 77 that "athletes when sluggish are revitalized by love-making."
The thinking behind sex bans is that athletes who exert themselves between the sheets will be too spent to perform the next day. Also, according to National Geographic, "some people believe the act of ejaculation draws testosterone, the hormone of both sexual desire and aggression, from the body." Both of those beliefs are probably wrong, though, and if the Brits and Ghanaians want to convince their bosses that sex bans should be overturned, they'll have plenty of arguments on their side:
1. There’s no research that suggests abstaining is a good idea. Or as this charming article from Slate’s French version puts it (Google-translated for maximum hilarity): "Should we make love before the games? ... The answer will not come from science." One of the few papers on the topic was a meta-analysis written in 2000 by sports medicine specialist Ian Shrier and then-student (now awe-inspiring triathlete) Samantha McGlone. It didn’t turn up any negative effects, and it suggested there might be some positive ones, but the findings have to be taken with a grain of salt. "There wasn't a whole lot of research at the time, and I don’t think there’s been much done since," says McGlone. "There were a few serious papers—maybe two that were proper randomized, controlled studies—but the logistics of studying this kind of thing are pretty hard." What few studies there are, she notes, are mostly conducted on college kids, not elite athletes, so they hardly apply to the World Cup. "You're not going to get a top-level athlete saying, 'I'm going to devote myself to research.' Anecdotal is about as good as you’re going to get," she says. One more caveat: almost no one bothers to study the effect of sex on female athletes.
2. Sex isn’t much more of a workout than climbing a few flights of stairs, so it's unlikely to leave a professional athlete winded. Even with great enthusiasm, it burns somewhere between 25 and 50 calories, on average.
3. Abstaining from sex may actually lower your level of testosterone. Levels of the hormone do drop immediately after sex in both men and women, but that’s only a short-term effect. In the long term, not having sex may be worse for your testosterone levels than having sex. An endocrinologist who's studied the problem tells National Geographic that "after three months without sex, which is not so uncommon for some athletes, testosterone dramatically drops to levels close to children’s levels."
4. Sex is a great stress reliever. And stress interferes with athletic performance. "There's an optimal level of excitement and readiness for competition," says McGlone. “If you're too laid back, or too anxious, you're not going to perform well, so it's about hitting the sweet spot." She’s not talking about an anatomical sweet spot, but hey, for some people, sex may be a good way to get to the "optimal level of excitement and readiness."
5. The culprit probably isn't sex before competition, but lack of sleep. Baseball great Casey Stengel put it best: "The trouble is not that players have sex the night before a game. It's that they stay out all night looking for it." The relationship between sleep and testosterone is well established. Levels rise while the body rests, peaking in the morning. (That’s why lots of men tend to wake up, shall we say, ready.) If you don’t get enough shut-eye, your testosterone levels and your energy will lag, but that has nothing to do with sex; it's also true if you stay up all night, say, reading Proust.
6. Or maybe it's just the superstition that matters. "If you believe that having sex is going to sap your mojo for the big game, you need to stick with that, because the placebo effect is definitely going to be a factor," says McGlone. On the other hand, if you can psych yourself into thinking that sex is good for your abilities on the field, it might well be.
7. Wilt Chamberlain. Usually anecdotes don’t prove or disprove anything; for that, you need data. But look, the man had no problem scoring on or off the court, and he had a really big sample size.
With all this in mind, is there any validity to the English and Ghanaian team policies? Maybe the players will get more sleep under the no-sex policy than they would with their WAGs and female fans around. (Or maybe, given how ineffective abstinence campaigns can be, they’ll just cheat on their absent women and the policy.) And maybe the enforced dry spell will make them bond as a team. "This may be about making the team a cohesive unit, especially when the players don’t play together a lot, like in the World Cup," says McGlone.
But we’re guessing at least some of the abstinent World Cup players will be nervous and jittery and in need of, you know, release, and that alone will keep them from getting a good night’s rest. If it were up to us, we’d prescribe a regimen of eight hours of sleep each night—and some optional afternoon delight.