Sex and the Olympic city
Tomorrow night thousands of young men and women with the most fit, toned bodies in the world will mingle for the last time before they fly home. What might they get up to?
I am often asked if the Olympic village - the vast restaurant and housing conglomeration that hosts the world's top athletes for the duration of the Games - is the sex-fest it is cracked up to be. My answer is always the same: too right it is. I played my first Games in Barcelona in 1992 and got laid more often in those two and a half weeks than in the rest of my life up to that point. That is to say twice, which may not sound a lot, but for a 21-year-old undergraduate with crooked teeth, it was a minor miracle.
Barcelona was, for many of us Olympic virgins, as much about sex as it was about sport. There were the gorgeous hostesses - there to assist the athletes - in their bright yellow shirts and black skirts; there were the indigenous lovelies who came to watch the competitions. And then there were the female athletes - literally thousands of them - strutting, shimmying, sashaying and jogging around the village, clad in Lycra and exposing yard upon yard of shiny, toned, rippling and unimaginably exotic flesh. Women from all the countries of the world: muscular, virile, athletic and oozing oestrogen. I spent so much time in a state of lust that I could have passed out. Indeed, for all I knew I did pass out - in a place like that how was one to tell the difference between dreamland and reality?
It was not just the guys. The women, too, seemed in thrall to their hormones, throwing around daring glances and dynamite smiles like confetti. No meal or coffee break was complete without a breathless conversation with a lithe long jumper from Cuba or an Amazonian badminton player from Sweden, the mutual longing so evident it was almost comical. It was an effort of will to keep everything in check until competition had finished. But, once we were eliminated from our respective competitions, we lunged at each other like suicidal fencers. There may have been a fair amount of gay sex going on, too - but given the notorious homophobia in sport it was rather more covert.
This sex fest was not limited to Barcelona: the same thing happened in Sydney in 2000, my second Olympics as an athlete, and is happening right here in Beijing, where this time I'm a commentator. I spoke to an Aussie table tennis player this week to check out the village vibe and he launched into the breathless patter common to any Olympic debutant: “It is unbelievable in there; everyone is totally crazy once they are out of their competitions. God knows what it is going to be like this weekend. It is like a world within a world.” A British runner (anonymous again: athletes are not supposed to talk to journalists unaccompanied by a PR type, least of all about sex) said: “The swimmers finished earlier in the week and it was like there was an eruption.”
Ah yes, the swimmers. For some reason the International Olympic Committee insists on bunching the swimming events towards the beginning of the Games with the inevitable consequence that the aquatics folk get going earlier - sexually I mean - than everyone else. So much so that, at the outset of the Sydney Olympics, Jonathan Edwards, a Christian and triple jumper extraordinaire, caused a ripple by telling them publicly to keep a lid on it. Edwards was simply concerned about getting woken up by creaking floorboards, but given his biblical credentials, it became a story about morality. Not that his intervention made a blind bit of difference. There is a famous story from Seoul in 1988 that there were so many used condoms on the roof terrace of the British team's residential block the night after the swimming concluded that the British Olympic Association sent out an edict banning outdoor sex. Here in Beijing, organisers have realised that such prohibitions are about as useful as banning breathing and have, instead, handed out thousands of free condoms to the athletes. If you can't stop 'em, at least make it safe.
Which all begs a question, or possibly many questions. First, and most importantly, how can one get access to the village? The bad news is that you can't, unless, of course, you happen to be an athlete with the relevant accreditation. But secondly, where does this furnace of sexual energy come from? Or, to put it another way, why do sportsmen and women have such explosive libidos? I am not implying, for one moment, that every athlete in Beijing is at it. Just that 99 per cent of them are.
Before we get to that, however, it is worth noting an intriguing dichotomy between the sexes in respect of all this coupling. The chaps who win gold medals - even those as geeky as Michael Phelps - are the principal objects of desire for many female athletes. There is something about sporting success that makes a certain type of woman go crazy - smiling, flirting and sometimes even grabbing at the chaps who have done the business in the pool or on the track. An Olympic gold medal is not merely a route to fame and fortune; it is also a surefire ticket to writhe.
But - and this is the thing - success does not work both ways. Gold-medal winning female athletes are not looked upon by male athletes with any more desire than those who flunked out in the first round. It is sometimes even considered a defect, as if there is something downright unfeminine about all that striving, fist pumping and incontinent sweating. Sport, in this respect, is a reflection of wider society, where male success is a universal desirable whereas female success is sexually ambiguous. I do not condone this phenomenon, merely note it. Not all athletes are finely tuned specimens of perfect physical health, of course. A fair number are smokers, not prepared to give up despite the nagging of coaches and physiologists. At Barcelona, there was an area where the puffers would congregate near the transport mall. At the table tennis events in Beijing, a male player from Serbia and another from Greece have often been out catching a drag during breaks in play.
But let us get back to all the sex going down in the village. One possible explanation centres on the fact that Olympic athletes have to display an unnatural (and, it has to be said, wholly unhealthy) level of self-discipline in the build-up to big competitions. How else is this going to manifest itself than with a volcanic release of pent-up hedonism? It is a common sight to see recently knocked-out athletes gorging on Magnums and McDonald's, swilling alcohol and, of course, shagging like crazy. Sometimes all three at the same time. Yet this can be only a part of the explanation because most of the athletes I know are as up for it before and during competition as they are in the immediate aftermath. It is as if sportsmen and women have a higher base level of sexual energy. But why? Can it be that one of the underlying drivers of sporting greatness is also the very thing that produces an overactive sex drive?
If so, you can bet your Olympic accreditation that testosterone is implicated. Testosterone is the hormone responsible for many of the differences between the sexes and is also a key physiological driver of aggression, competitiveness and virility. This is particularly so with regard to women. The duel effect of testosterone on female sporting performance and sexuality was demonstrated - somewhat sinisterly - during the state-sponsored doping programme in East Germany. An average teenage girl produces around half a milligram of testosterone per day. In the mid-1980s German female athletes were doped with around 30 milligrams of androgenic steroids per day. The effect on sporting performance was breathtaking - East German women dominated the world in swimming and athletics - but it also produced libidos (according to the testimony of the athletes themselves) that spiraled out of control.
This is not to say that the athletes in the village are all on steroids, or that elevated levels of testosterone inevitably lead to lots of sex. It is merely to say that, at a population level, higher naturally occurring levels of testosterone in both genders would provide a powerful explanation for the combination of sporting prowess and sexual potency.
I also think it is significant that, for most athletes, the village is thousands of miles from home. The old “what goes on tour stays on tour” mantra is still alive and kicking, not just in sport but beyond. There is something deepseated in humanity that leads us to play by different rules whenever we leave town, a phenomenon that has caused instances of terrible inhumanity. When it comes to sex, it simply means that those in relationships no longer recognise, or at least ignore, the boundaries of fidelity and honesty that underpin human monogamy. Philosophers call it moral relativism; the rest of us call it hypocrisy.
There is also a Darwinian component to this. Scientists have measured, for example, how male fertility varies with distance from one's habitual partner. And guess what? According to a report in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, a man's sperm count doubles when he spends a lot of time on the road - up from 389 million sperm per ejaculate to 712 million. Which, I am sure you will agree, is a lot of extra sperm.