Ancient and modern

Sex and the Games

4 August 2012

6:00 AM

4 August 2012

6:00 AM

Boxer Lennox Lewis, arguing that women weakened a man, avoided sex for three weeks before a fight. Greeks would have agreed, but things seem somewhat different in the contraceptive-laden Olympic village.

Ancient theory was based on the idea that semen was a vital element in keeping a man strong. The doctor Aretaeus (1st century ad) said, ‘If any man is in possession of semen, he is fierce, courageous and physically mighty, like beasts. Evidence for this is to be found in athletes who practise abstinence.’ Even involuntary nocturnal emissions were thought to be enfeebling, threatening one’s endurance and breathing. The doctor Galen (2nd century ad) recommended that athletes take precautions against them: ‘A flattened lead plate is an object to be placed under the muscles of the loins of an athlete in training, chilling them whenever they might have nocturnal emissions of semen.’ Some athletes refused to tolerate even the mention of sex in their presence, walking out of the room when the conversation turned that way. The pankratiast Cleitomachus is said to have averted his gaze when he saw two dogs mating.


All this was of a piece with the notion that athletics and self-discipline should go hand in hand. This may help to explain the practice of infibulation (tying up the foreskin with a cord). Homoeroticism was normal where fit young males gathered to exercise naked, but in the context of public athletic competition, it may have been felt that displays of sexual arousal were best avoided. Infibulation was a practical way of trying to exert some external control over an organ which, Greeks seem to have thought, had a mind of its own.

But if sex before exercise was regarded as harmful, sex after was just the job (especially, one doctor recommends, running and horse-riding). As the poet Theognis said ‘Happy is the lover who goes home after working out in the gym to sleep all day with a beautiful young man.’ So losers at the London Olympics may have some compensation in store, if only with other losers.

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