Brian Viner: Everything you ever wanted to know about sex and peak performance
Bill Shankly used to tell his players to wear boxing gloves in bed on Friday nights
Saturday 18 February 2006
Chemmy Alcott skied her heart out the day after St Valentine's Day, having publicly declared her intention not to permit over the threshold of her Olympic digs any chap with romance on his mind. "No boys in my room tonight," she said. "I need to stay focused."
Her comment was received as light-heartedly as it was delivered, although a week or so earlier Alcott had made it clear in an interview with me that she genuinely doesn't believe in mixing skiing with sex. The Super-G and the G-spot are not even on nodding terms, apparently. "The last time I had a boyfriend was when I was training in Bath, at the university," she said. "I went out with a chiropractor there, but all the time I knew that as soon as the season started the relationship would have to end. It's tough on the other person but I'm very selfish when the season starts."
So, in the light of her 11th-place finish in the downhill on Wednesday - the best performance by a female British skier in the Olympics since Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich were at No 1 - it seems relevant to muse further on the relationship between sex and sport, and whether the former necessarily inhibits the latter. Could it be, in fact, that if Alcott had welcomed that chap carrying a dozen red roses and gently crooning "Lady In Red" into her soft embrace on Valentine's night, she might have finished 10th?
Probably not. There must be a good reason why some of the canniest operators in all sorts of sporting spheres have taken the view that the libido is the enemy. Indeed, I have it on unimpeachable authority that a very famous football manager recently dispensed with the services of a player he considered to be potentially as good as anyone in the Premiership because said player could not keep his trousers up, right up to and occasionally even beyond the point at which he arrived at the stadium.
Moreover, Ian St John once told me that Bill Shankly used to tell his Liverpool players, not entirely in jest, that on Friday nights they should wear boxing-gloves in bed. "And if that doesn't work," he would add, "then send her to her mother's."
It was boxing that had persuaded Shankly of the dangers of sex. If Joe Louis had managed to abstain before a big fight, then so could Ron Yeats. Shankly was a huge admirer of the Brown Bomber. "He read once that Joe Louis trained on steaks," added St John, through tears of mirth. "So that was it. On Fridays, we'd have steak. Saturday lunch, steak. Saturday night on the way back from the match, steak. When you left Liverpool you went vegetarian."
Traditionally, sexual abstinence is almost part of the strategy of boxing.
In 1974, shortly before the "Rumble in the Jungle" undermined George Foreman's formidable reputation as a fighter, the awesome world heavyweight champion was described by Keith Botsford in The Sunday Times as "almost determinedly neuter". Botsford implied that had the champ been less neuter, he would have been less awesome. Of course, the irony is that we now know Foreman as a cuddly old grill salesman with 10 kids, five daughters and five sons, the boys all called George Edward Foreman on the basis, so he tells us, that when he succumbs to amnesia, "as all ex-boxers do, I'll be able to remember their names". I wonder at what point he stopped being almost determinedly neuter? Perhaps it was when Muhammad Ali took his title. Norman Mailer later observed that the destroying of Foreman as a champion had been the making of him as a man, and maybe that applies to sex as much as anything else.
Meanwhile, the ultimate irony in the intriguing relationship between sex and sport is that these people are being urged to restrain themselves just when they are at their most virile. I had never given much thought to this until I was handed a fact sheet before the Commonwealth Games in Manchester four years ago. It informed me that along with the 70,000 litres of milk stockpiled to meet the competitors' needs, not to mention the 11,600 kilos of mushrooms and 3.5 million paper napkins, were 150,000 condoms. As I wrote at the time, even with 5,000 athletes holed up in Manchester for a fortnight, and even allowing for overzealous purchasing, the organisers were clearly anticipating an awful lot of friskiness. It will be interesting to see what the condom ration is in Melbourne next month.
And less than three months after that, the world's greatest footballers will assemble in Germany for the World Cup, with the Brazilians doubtless looking on with their customary amusement as some team or other issues a nookie ban.
It's worth remembering the story of a footballer who got into terrible trouble with his coach a few years ago when discovered having sex in his hotel room on the night before a big match. Only the intervention of the club's directors stopped the coach dropping the young man, whose full name was Ronaldo de Assis Moreira. The next day, for Paris St-Germain against Lens, young Ronaldinho played a blinder.
Who I like this week...
The French. Not all of them, obviously. My family and I have just spent four days in Paris and in one boulangerie near the Place de la Bastille we encountered what amounted to a true "tour de force" in Parisian rudeness.
Nor is it a city, even during the Six Nations campaign, remotely as consumed by sport as any British city. We didn't see a single football scarf or shirt during our stay, for example, then spotted 10 within a few minutes of arriving back at Waterloo Station. That said, any nation capable of sustaining the sports newspaper L'Equipe is to be admired.
Its report "de notre envoyé special [by our special correspondent]" of Wednesday's Uefa Cup match between Bolton Wanderers - "les banlieusards de Manchester [from the Manchester suburbs]" - and Marseilles was a work of literature.
And who I don't
The Welsh. Not all of them, obviously. And especially not Mike Ruddock, whose departure as coach of the Welsh rugby union team remains shrouded in more mystery than the Bermuda Triangle.
Perhaps the true story will never emerge, but it seems clear that the "family reasons" cited do not tell even half of it; nor is it simply a case of Ruddock being undermined by the charismatic captain, Gareth Thomas.
Whatever, the inescapable fact remains that Wales at last had a home-grown coach, decent and honest to boot, who last season delivered the first Grand Slam in years. So they got rid of him.
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