Sex and the Modern Athlete

JOE CHIDLEY July 22 1996

Sex and the Modern Athlete

JOE CHIDLEY July 22 1996

Sex and the Modern Athlete



When 15,000 athletes and officials descend on the Olympic Village in Atlanta, they will find more than a few diversions. There are movie theatres, souvenir shops, a coffeehouse, a dance club, a bowling alley—even an electronic games pavilion, home to the latest in high-tech arcade machines, and a socalled Surf Shack, where athletes can explore the Internet. In short, the Olympic Village will be a mini-city—with all the distractions that a full-fledged cosmopolitan community has to offer. But perhaps the most powerful distraction in Atlanta will be one that is older than the Olympic Games: the allure of romance and its earthy corollary, sex. It may not jibe with the squeaky-clean Olympic ideal. But at the 1996 Games, as in the past, the convergence of impossibly fit young people from all over the world, for the biggest moment of their lives, will inevitably spawn games behind the Games—international affairs of the flesh.

Sports fans are enured to the lurid tales rising out of professional sport. There is the one about basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain, who claims to have slept with 20,000 women. Or the cross-dressing antics of the Chicago Bulls’ Dennis Rodman. Or the travails of Dallas Cowboys football star Michael Irvin, arrested in March after being discovered in an Irving, Tex., hotel room wit! illicit drugs and two female employees of a topless bar. But in amateur sport—where teams and athletes are supported by governments, or by imageconscious corporate sponsors—romantic escapades are talked about in secret. Even off the record, many athletes are reluctant to discuss the S-word. ‘You know it goes on, and with people that you don’t really expect,” says one Canadian veteran of the 1992 Barcelona Games. “But I can’t name names—I’d probably ruin a couple of marriages.”

Still, tales of the heart from the Olympics and other international competitions have been making the rounds in the amateur sporting community for years. Among them:

• At the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, the talk of the final week was how one star of the Canadian hockey team vigorously pursued a pretty Canadian figure skater—and his clumsy, unsuccessful advances drew teasing from more senior members of the team.

• At a pre-Games regatta in Finland recently, two Eastern European rowers were entertaining a prostitute in their room

when they heard their coach approaching. In beating a hasty exit through the window, one rower broke his ribs, the other his ankle. The unregistered female guest was uninjured.

• One of the free medical services at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona was the distribution of condoms—and medical officials handed out 50,000 of them. At the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, one Russian skier went to the medical centre and requested 300 condoms just for himself—he was turned down. And during the Southeast Asian Games in Chiang Mai, Thailand, last December, public health officials broke the prophylactic record—distributing three million condoms to athletes, fans and the city’s numerous sex workers.

• At an international track meet in the late 1980s, one runner’s female manager seduced a competitor, keeping him away from the track until five minutes before the race. The competitor showed up anyway, and ran to a crushing victory. The story goes that afterwards, the manager approached her runner and said: “I did my job—why didn’t you do yours?”

• It may be more bombast than reality, but before the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France, Italian skier Alberto Tomba— the notorious playboy who vigorously pursued German skater Katarina Witt four years before at Calgary—said that he was cooling his sexual jets. “I used to have a wild time with three women until 5 a.m.,” Tomba told reporters. “In the Olympic Village, I will only live it up with five women until 3 a.m.”

Such stories may shock some fans. But the vast majority of

Olympians behave responsibly. “Pretty much every athlete takes the Games very seriously,” says three-time Canadian Olympic speed skater Nathalie Lambert. { “They want to perform well, and they’re serious both k%in their training and in their off-training life.” And Olympic-inspired relationships are not always casu-

“For the first week, it’s pretty serious, because for most people you still have to compete. And then after they’ve competed, it’s like, woah, throw caution to the wind.” To prevent that, the Canadian swim team has introduced a “no-sex” rule for its swimmers, who range in age from 16 (butterfly swimmer Jessica Deglau) to 25 (breast stroker Jon Cleveland). The swimmers’ code of conduct, written by head coach Dave Johnson, lists sexual activity as an inappropriate behavior—along with curfew violations, use of alcohol or drugs, and public mischief.

Gretchen Kerr, a sports psychologist at the University of Toronto, points out that while many of the top-notch medal contenders may concentrate solely on the competition, the priorities of the thousands of other athletes who have no realistic medal hopes may be different. ‘Tes, they are there to perform, but they

are also there to experience the Olympics, which is meeting people from other countries and other cultures,” Kerr says. And many of the athletes have made lifelong sacrifices— relationships included— just to get to the Games.

“For most of them, it will never happen again,” Kerr says. “So when it’s all over— hey, let’s go wild.”

That sense of celebration, however, can present real challenges for Olympic medical officials, who consider the issue of sex in the Village as a health concern. Every Canadian athlete at the 1992 Barcelona Games received a so-called amenities package, containing a water bottle, sun-

screen, some sport-drink powder—and condoms. Prophylactics will also be freely available to athletes in Atlanta. “I think it would be a great tragedy for any athlete,” says Dr. Andrew Pipe, chief medical officer for the Canadian team in Barcelona, “to contract a sexual disease or cause unwanted pregnancy through irresponsible sexual behavior.”

Teaching responsibility is a big part of Pipe’s current job as chief physician for the men’s basketball team. Although the squad failed to qualify for the Olympics this year, Pipe is already preparing the team for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. In training camp in Toronto, he gives lectures to players about the health issues surrounding international travel—everything from jet lag and gastroenteritis to safe sex. Says Pipe: “The idea is that, if you’re an international athlete, you have to make good choices—

For many, romance is the game behind the Games

whether that’s choosing when to throw a pass, or choosing how you live your life sexually.”

If Olympic athletes are having sex—even the safe kind—does it take away from their performance on the field of play? In the sporting world, the putative benefits of sexual abstinence have a long tradition, dating back to ancient times. Denying oneself, the theory goes, sharpens focus or builds up tension to be released in competition. And for some athletes, the old chestnut of no-sex-thenight-before still applies. “Sex makes you happy,” American miler Marty Liquori once said, “and happy people don’t run a 3:47 mile.” But among athletes, coaches and physicians, the majority opinion seems to be that sex itself has little or no effect on sporting performance. “I think that issue has been put to bed—no pun intended,” says Pipe. In fact, experts say that sex before competition can be either beneficial or detrimental, largely depending on how the athlete looks at it. “Psychologically, it can be a very good thing,” says Kerr, “because it’s a tension reliever—as long as the athletes aren’t going to be worried that it’s going to affect their performance.”

After winning a national 10,000-m title in 1993, U.S. track star Lynn Jennings freely acknowledged that sex—with her husband, Dave Hill—had helped her performance. “I

have found that sex the night before solidifies my core feeling of happiness and my relationship with Dave,” she said. Closer to home: after Canadian downhill skier Kerrin Lee-Gartner captured gold at the 1992 Games in Albertville, a Swiss newspaper reported that she had sex with her husband, Max, the night before her victory. “ We made good vibrations for the race,’ ” the story in Blick quoted Lee-Gartner as saying. When she saw the paper upon her return to Alberta, the skier denied speaking to the Swiss re-

porter, but played coy with the sex question. “Whatever we did, it worked—I’m not going to say it’s what’s in this paper,” she said. “Besides, I’m not about to give my secret away to every other athlete.”

One track coach says that sex may indeed be a distraction—but probably the least harmful of all the diversions the Olympic Village offers. “At least you’re probably not on your feet most of the time it’s going on,” he adds. “I’d be more concerned about shopping.” Practically the only time an athlete’s sex life would concern a coach, he explains, is if he or she indulges more or less than normal. “The rule in perfor-

mance is ‘Nothing special,’ ” says the coach. “At the Olympics, whatever your normal lifestyle is, that’s probably the best way to go.”

In sport, as in love, there is an exception to every rule. The night before the long-jump finals at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, Bob Beamon had sex—something he had never done the night before a major competition. (With whom he did it, history does not record.) According to biographer Dick Schaap, Beamon was overcome with fear that he had blown his chances at Olympic gold. But the next morning, on his first jump, the 22year-old American soared through the air for 29 feet, 2 inches— beating the world record by almost two feet. It was a remarkable achievement, which some skeptics attributed to the thin air of Mexico City. But who knows? Maybe Eros—that most mischievous of Olympian gods—had a hand in it, too. □