Can athletes 'score' during World Cup?
As the World Cup draws closer by the day, there is no limit to the length fans, media and even political figures will go to help predict what will happen in the next month. Injuries, nutrition, accommodations, leisure activities -- everything is scrutinized and analyzed. So perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise last week when the president of Brazil critiqued his team's chances by mentioning, well, sex.
Speaking to a group of reporters at a conference about sports in Brazil, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva claimed his country would win the World Cup thanks to the rampant romping Argentina's Diego Maradona said he would allow his team to practice in South Africa.
"Diego Maradona is the only coach to adopt such a policy," Silva said. "I want to see the Argentines arrive staggering and exhausted to their games and Brazil will win this World Cup."
It's an argument that goes all the way back to Plato, who argued that ancient Olympic competitors should avoid sexual intimacy to improve performance. Some 500 years later, Pliny the Elder disputed such claims, insisting that athletes could be revitalized by lovemaking.
More recently, Muhammad Ali freely acknowledged he would abstain from having sex for six to eight weeks prior to any championship fight. Then there's Bob Beamon, who had sex only once before competition -- the night before he soared a world-record 29 feet, 2½ inches at the 1968 Summer Olympics.
At this year's World Cup, coaches from Chile and England have publicly said they will not allow their players to wrinkle the bedsheets during the tournament. Dunga, the manager for Brazil, said he would allow his players to have conjugal visits with their wives and girlfriends, but only on off days.
"If the hard work makes players get nervous, we give them a break," Dunga told the Brazilian media during the team's training camp. "There is no problem to let family and friends visit them. In the free time, everybody likes to do something. But not everyone likes sex, wine or ice cream. We must respect the individuality of each one."
England manager Fabio Capello, whose team will face the U.S. on Saturday (2:30 p.m. ET on ABC), has reportedly installed cameras at the team hotel in an effort to keep the WAGs -- wives and girlfriends -- at arm's length. According to England's Daily Star, the cameras will ensure that no one violates the rule banning shagging or overnight stays. Capello is hopeful to avoid a repeat of 2006, when Britain's tabloids were filled with wild stories about players, wives and girlfriends throughout the World Cup in Germany.
As for the U.S., when asked this week about coach Bob Bradley's policy on sex before games, defender Jay DeMerit laughed and said, "This might be a surprise to you, but that's not something Bob necessarily talks to us about."
Said Bradley, when asked about his WAGs policy: "Many of the players' wives and girlfriends will be coming to South Africa. U.S. soccer has done a great job with a Family and Friends program. We look forward to having some opportunities to get together with our families and friends but fit that in with the work that we continue to focus on."
So who's right in all of this? Does sex have any affect on athletic performance? Absolutely not, says Dr. Tommy Boone, a professor of Exercise Psychology at The College of St. Scholastica and the author of "Sex Before Athletic Competition -- Fact or Myth." According to Boone, the amount of calories burned during sex is comparable to climbing two to three flights of stairs and then stretching to get a book perched high on a shelf. For a player in peak physical shape, sex could burn as few as 20 calories.
"Even if a person was hung by whips and chains from the ceiling, the total amount of energy consumed is not enough to produce a significant cardiovascular effect," he said. "[Silva] is just continuing to perpetuate the propaganda that has been passed around for decades. And there's nothing but anecdotal evidence to support it."
Back in 1995, Boone commissioned a study to prove just that. He ran two series of tests on 11 males after maximum physical exertion on a treadmill. One day the subjects had intercourse 12 hours before the test. Another day they didn't. And the results were nearly identical.
If anything, Boone says, the psychological benefits of sex might actually increase a player's on-field performance because of sex's ability to decrease stress, increase self-esteem and improve self body image.
"You're not going to get some athlete achieving maximum performance if he is loaded down with stress," Boone said. "The release that is associated with a heightened state of arousal sets the stage for better psychological preparation, be it in a business deal or at an athletic event."
Perhaps this helps explain the beliefs of Washington Capitols star Alexander Ovechkin, who told Russia Today last year: "Sex really does help. Before and after." Or former Brazilian soccer star Romario, once a roommate of Dunga's, who told Brazil's Trip magazine, "When I do it before a game, I feel different. I feel lighter, my legs are more nimble. If I don't have sex on the day before a game, something will be missing."
Prior to last summer's Champions Trophy cricket tournament in South Africa, India coach Gary Kirsten encouraged his players to have sex. In a document that was leaked to the Hindustan Times, Kristen wrote, "Go ahead and indulge," while advocating "going solo" if no partner was available.
"Having sex increases testosterone levels, which causes an increase in strength, aggression and competitiveness," the Times reported the document as saying. "Conversely, not having sex for a few months causes a significant drop."
Of course, this all assumes that players aren't carousing on the streets looking for a partner. As Yankees manager Casey Stengel once said, "The trouble is not that players have sex the night before a game. It's that they stay out all night looking for it."
That's why, when explaining why his team would be allowed to have sex during the tournament, Argentina team doctor Donato Villani explained, "It should not be at 2 a.m. with champagne and Havana cigars."
"The key to all this is the context in which the sex occurs," said Dr. Barry Komisaruk, a psychology professor at Rutgers who has studied the effects of sex on the human brain. "If it's with booze and late nights and getting hooked on some woman and wondering if she loves you, then yeah, that could be very deleterious."
In 2000, Dr. Ian Shrier, a past president of the Canadian Academy of Sports Medicine and an investigator at McGill's Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Community Studies, wrote in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine that there are is no psychological evidence that sex helps or hinders performance. And although there hasn't been significant research done on the psychological effects of pre-performance sex, Shrier said he believes an absence or abundance of sex could affect an athlete's attention and thus his performance.
"If sex is a distraction and causes one to lose focus, then it could be good for those who are too focused and bad for those who are not focused enough," he said. "So, it could then be used as any other psychological technique to achieve optimal focus."
"If you take an athlete who has been engaged in sexual activity for years and then tell him to suddenly abstain, that's much more disruptive to the human body than going out drinking all night and trying to compete the next day," he said. "It just doesn't make sense."
In which case, maybe Silva shouldn't be quite that excited. Argentina just might be the new 2010 World Cup favorite.
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ESPN.com soccer writer Jeff Carlisle and ESPN The Magazine's Luke Cyphers contributed.