England manager Roy Hodgson’s decision not to pay for the WAGs – the collective entity formerly known as wives and girlfriends – to go to the World Cup is bad news for the paparazzi and financially devastating for Rio de Janeiro’s designer boutiques, waxing salons and beauty parlours. The decision has rekindled the age-old debate about whether pre-match sex helps or hinders a sportsman’s performance. It’s a great pub debate, but, in England’s case, it rather misses the point. It doesn’t matter whether they shag all night or abstain for weeks, the outcome will still be the same. England will be rubbish.
The argument over whether the England camp should be a WAG-free zone has been raging since the 2006 World Cup. Sven-Goran Eriksson treated his players as adults and didn’t ban wives and girlfriends from the team HQ. However, the media circus that accompanied the WAG entourage in Baden Baden was widely seen as a contributing factor to England’s lacklustre performance in the tournament. Sven’s successor, Fabio Capello, took a far more disciplinarian approach. He created a sexless and joyless boot camp in Rustenburg, where the England team were based during the 2010 South Africa World Cup. WAGs were banned, along with mobile phones and pretty much any semblance of fun. When the England team flopped in the tournament, the Italian coach’s strict regime came under heavy criticism. Despite misleading news headlines, Roy Hodgson hasn’t imposed a blanket ban on WAGs. It certainly won’t be a sex camp but nor will it be a boot camp. WAGs are not technically banned from England’s hotel in Rio. The FA won’t fly the WAGs out to Brazil or pay for their hotels, but nor will they stop players seeing their families if they choose to travel out independently.
As I said, the sex and sport debate isn’t new. In fact it’s been raging since the dawn of competitive sport. Back in 444BC, Plato wrote that ‘Olympic competitors before races should avoid sexual intimacy’. Not all the sporting pundits of classical antiquity agreed. In 77AD Pliny the Elder – who was Sven to Plato’s Capello – declared that ‘Athletes when sluggish are revitalised by lovemaking’. It’s a debate which has divided sporting opinion ever since. Former Mexican footballer Antonio Miguel says that in the 1950s and early 1960s, it was thought that sex adversely affected players’ performance. ‘Coaches gave us nitrate salts because, according to them, this would inhibit the sexual desire’, Miguel recounted. The advocates of abstinence believe that sexual activity saps strength and diminishes aggression, whereas the pro-nookie camp argue that sex is relaxing and can help ease pre-competition nerves.
Is there any evidence to settle the argument? The sexual practices of sporting champions don’t really provide any answers. Muhammad Ali preferred abstinence, so, too, did British Olympic sprinting champion Linford Christie. On the other hand, Bob Beamon had sex the night before his world-record-breaking long jump in 1968. It will come as no surprise to learn that George Best was also in favour of pre-match sex. ‘I certainly never found it had any effect on my performance. Maybe best not the hour before, but the night before makes no odds’, he quipped. What about Brazilian footballers? They know a thing or two about scoring on the pitch but where do they stand on scoring off of it? The legendary Pele was not averse to a bit of coito on the eve of a big game. For Romário, a World Cup winner in 1994, sex was an essential part of his pre-match routine. ‘When I do it before a game, I feel different. I feel lighter, my legs are more nimble’, the striker explained. ‘If I don’t have sex on the day before a game, something will be missing.’ However, not all Brazilians take the same view. Coach Felipe Scolari imposed a sex ban on his squad during the 2002 World Cup. And the result? His sex-starved squad came home with the trophy.
Plato and Pliny the Elder didn’t have the benefit of sports science in their day. Today, there are academics who earn a living from studying the impact of sex on athletic performance. The prevailing academic opinion dismisses the argument that sexual activity saps a sportsman’s strength. As one US researcher explained: ‘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.’ But, while sex itself may not be a problem, the lack of sleep that usually accompanies sex could well impair performance. Or, as US baseball manager Casey Stengel memorably put it, ‘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.’