Sex and the Olympics


The August 22, 2008 issue of (London) Times Online featured a fascinating article by former Olympic swimmer (now reporter) Matthew Syed titled "Sex and the Olympic city: fun after the Games".  In the first week since it's publication, more than a million people have read it. The Times posted some of the more interesting response here. One responder, Richard Gordon, from Toronto, Canada had this to say: "Matthew Syed asks why, but it's clearly nature's way. We are all driven by that mystical force that none of us understands to procreate with the best genetic match possible. The Olympics brings together the most talented and gifted athletes. It's not surprising they all want to screw each other."

What follows are a few key passages from the original article, together with links to three previous blog posts of mine on the subject of how evolutionary psychology and evolutionary brain science offer deep insights into human nature, corroborating and furthering traditional mythic/religious understandings.

"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?

Syed continues:

"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."

And more:

"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."

Syed then poses a key question:

"Where does this furnace of sexual energy come from? Or, to put it another way, why do sportsmen and women have such explosive libidos?" (This is the question that Canadian, Richard Gordon, was referring to in the first paragraph of this blog, above.)

Scientists have discovered that testosterone is a multi-purpose steroid.  Both cause and consequence of supreme athletic activity, testosterone is the natural hormone in both men and women that builds muscle mass.  But that is not all it does: it promotes aggressive impulses, risk-taking, and sex drive.

Okay, so we only needed to tap physiological science to understand the link between athletic achievement, testosterone, and the sexual urge.  But let's take an evolutionary look at the male/female differences that Syed also reports:

"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."

He continues:

"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."

Here are links to three previous blog posts of mine related to this subject:

There's Nothing Shameful About Accountability

Lizard Legacy Bites Three More Alphas

Zoey 101, Brian Science 101

Anyone care to comment on why this all make sense from an evolutionary perspective?