Sex at the Olympic Games? The Truth Revealed

Olympic athletes are interviewed about sex at the Games

Posted Aug 15, 2016

lazyllama/Shutterstock
Source: lazyllama/Shutterstock

Hundreds of thousands of condoms get distributed to athletes at the Olympic Games. But how many are actually being used?

People are curious for a number of reasons. First, Olympians are supposed to be focused on their sport, not sex. Many coaches instruct athletes not to have sex—and even to avoid romantic relationships altogether—because their energy should be saved for competition. However, empirical research suggests that sex and romantic relationships actually enhance rather than detract from performance. So coaches might want to rethink that advice.

But mostly people are curious because the thought of 10,000 world-class athletes hooking up is anything but boring. The Olympic Village provides the perfect context for romance to blossom. It is well-known among social psychologists that similarity and proximity promote attraction. The village hosts an abundance of single people matched on traits such as athleticism, youth, and lifestyle, all living in extremely close quarters. The intensity of the Games, potentially coupled with some coaches’ orders to avoid sex creates a pressure cooker environment in need of release, especially after individual athletes' scheduled competition has ended.

To find out the truth, a research assistant and I attended the Games and interviewed Olympians from different countries and sports. Of the athletes we interviewed, only 10 percent admitted to having sexual contact with other athletes. Their reasons for not fostering romantic connections included being already married or seriously involved with someone; not having enough free time; and being too focused on their sport.

An additional 10 percent admitted a desire to engage in sexual contact but felt that their high profiles interfered with their ability to do so. As one athlete said, “I am well-known and people pay attention to my actions.” Another said, “I see the same people at different events and they know me and my wife, so this type of behavior is impossible.”

For those who did establish romantic connections at the Games, I asked what had sparked their interest in an individual partner. They cited qualities such as physical attraction, prolonged eye contact, and having increased exposure to a particular person.

In addition to our interviews, we had a confidential informant working in the Village with regular contact with the athletes, and who provided valuable information about the development of these connections. Most athletes arrive two weeks before the Games and so they have plenty of time to interact in common areas like the main dining hall, the informant explained. And while athletes tend not to mingle so much at the outset, they become more relaxed with time, especially once their events are over: “As the Games go on, you see more athletes talking and holding hands in public. When the food and beverage workers deliver to the rooms, they see the athletes together.”

However, cultural factors related to athletes' countries of origin and to their sport influence relationship formation. Some athletes are under strict orders, and their cultural norms discourage socializing with athletes from other countries or perhaps even socializing at all.

Scott Webb
Source: Scott Webb

We also assessed platonic friendship connections among athletes. Approximately 25 percent of athletes indicated they had not fostered any such relationships with new people at the Games. They described obstacles such as not having any free time, being too focused on their sport, and language barriers.

Another 25 percent said they had formed new connections but only with athletes from their own country, But 45 percent said they had fostered connections with people from other countries. When asked what facilitated these relationships, they described personality traits such as openness, warmth, and good character on the part of themselves and the people they met.

In conclusion, our research found that the media’s perennial and breathless depiction of rampant sexual relationships at the Games to be exaggerated. Although romantic connections certainly do occur, the abundant condoms distributed at the Games will certainly not all be used. Some will be taken home as souvenirs—and others will be needed by the many workers in Olympic Village. As our informant said, “Don’t forget, the employees are having fun, too!”

Thanks to assistant Kelly Myers and my confidential informant for their contributions to this research.

References

Campbell, K., Hosseini, C., Myers, K., & *Calub, N. (2016). Does love influence athletic performance? The perspectives of Olympic athletes. Review of European Studies, 8 (2), 1-7. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5539/res.v8n2p1