Wednesday 22 August 2007

Sex before Sport?

It is the virile sports-person's eternal question - should one abstain from a little bit of nookie before a big sporting event?

The question has again been raised, this time with regard to the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Favourites New Zealand have vowed to go without special cuddles for however long they remain in the tournament. The All Blacks have conspired methods to lose each World Cup since 1987, despite being indisputably the best team in the world throughout most of this period. It pains me to admit this being an Australian, but despite brief periods of dominance by the Wallabies and the Springboks, and a very timely peak by England in 2003, the All Blacks are always the team to beat.

So, the latest Kiwi strategy to grab hold of the Cup is to lay off the loving. But is there any scientific basis to this? Does sex really have an effect on your physical sporting performance, or is this a psychological tactic to have the players' minds ready on game day?

It is certainly not a new theory. Before the Olympics in Athens 2004, hundreds of athletes pledged not to indulge, however even more took the opportunity to do the exact opposite. 130,000 condoms and 30,000 packets of lubricant were made available to the athletes, and in Sydney, athletes had a quota of three condoms a day - and this did not meet demand! This is no real surprise if you think about the Olympic village atmosphere - thousands of very fit, attractive, young and confident males and females from all over the world, probably up for anything without a care in the world once their events were over. Perhaps this was something like a massive backpacker hostel where everyone was rich and attractive without the dodgy old local trying to pick up the Contiki tourists.

Do those who do abstain have a performance advantage? Love him or hate him (I think he's great), WBA Super-Middleweight champion Anthony Mundine is one of Australia's best athletes. However, Mundine abstained for 10 weeks before his first world title fight against Sven Ottke, and we know what happened (Mundine was knocked out in the 10th round). I can not find any reports of Ottke abstaining.

One of the more amusing sex/sport anecdotes is the banning of former US 100 m champion and 1992 Olympic Bronze Medallist, Dennis Mitchell for showing high levels of testosterone. He had originally escaped ban within the US after claiming that his high levels were a result of having sex at least four times the night before and drinking five bottles of beer. The IAAF overturned this decision and banned him for 2 years.

There is no conclusive evidence that sex the night before an event can have an effect either way on your physical sporting performance, despite what Rocky Balboa's trainer Mickey said, "Women weaken legs."

"There are two possible ways sex before competition could affect performance," said Ian Shrier, a sports medicine specialist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada to National Geographic.

"First, it could make you tired and weak the next day. This has been disproved. The second way is that it could affect your psychological state of mind. This has not been tested."

There is a common perception that ejaculation draws testosterone from the body. Actually, it seems the reverse may be true, as testosterone levels rise in men during sex. Higher testosterone levels are good for explosive sports such as boxing or 100 m sprinting - perhaps Mitchell was telling the truth, and perhaps Mundine should rethink his strategy.

Most scientists also now think that the actual act of sex does not really tire you out physically - it only burns around 50 calories, depending on how you do it of course. What might be bad for you is if you stay up all night and deprive yourself of sleep, or if it was getting drunk that got you into bed in the first place.

Sex can also be relaxing, but the actual physical relaxation post-sex does not last into the next day. Indeed, perhaps sex with the wrong person could make you more agitated the next day. And whether or not being relaxed is a good thing for sport is another question. Certainly, some elite athletes take caffeine pills before a match, and this caused quite a stir in Australia when the then Wallabies captain George Gregan admitted as much. The effects of "legal drugs" such as caffeine would far outweigh the much milder effects of sex the night before.

I suspect the effect, if there is any, is physiological and differs greatly from athlete to athlete. By locking out partners from their hotel rooms, the All Blacks are creating a very tight team environment which may raise their performance. It is not so much the banning of sex, more the banning of non-team members, from their lives. That said, the partners are permitted to stay in the same hotel, if not the same room, and so there may be much sneaking through hallways at midnight. The strategies concerning partners on team trips varies from team to team, with the Australian cricket team now allowing partners to stay with the players. Different levels of personal autonomy work better for different teams.

There may be some difference here between the sexes. Israeli scientist Alexander Olshanietzky has said that women compete better after orgasm, especially high jumpers and runners. So if you are a female competitor, you can always use the argument on an unwilling partner, "it's for good of the country!"

For what it's worth, I'm no international sportsman, but I found that my cricket performance was always best after having enough coffee to make Alex Watson's effort look tiny (I somehow didn't realise my peculator was making my coffee 6 times the normal strength...). I was a fair shire batsman with a hundred and a couple of fifties under my belt in my late teens before sex - and more to the point, late nights and beer - played any part in my life. Nowadays, I struggle! But sport is a mind game, and as you get older, different factors weigh more heavily in your life, and standing around all day in the Australian sun doesn't quite hold the excitement that it used to! I suspect that all sport is like this. If you think that sex before a game is going to help you, then it will. The physical effects are most likely negligible, but if you are happy and confident, or feel loved by a partner, then you will perform better. This is how much of alternative medicine works. And if you are ensconced in your team environment before the game, as all professional teams are, and going through the physical preparations, then the physical effects of sex the night before are non-existant.

If, however, it made you happy and confident, or cranky and disappointed, that's when the effects might kick in.

The podcast can be found here - included are some very candid opinions from sports-people.

And now you can vote in the poll - let me know what you think.

Edit: Here are the results

Should you have sex the night before a big sporting event? (see map)

Yes - Good for your performance:
No - Bad for your performance:
I'll take it when I can get it:
Only if you're married:
Makes absolutely no difference to your performance:
Total Votes: 199
Powered by Blog Flux Polls

Listen to this show here.

Monday 20 August 2007

Why I never took sides

Growing up in 1980's Australia meant watching some absolutely fantastic television.

When you have ads and public television announcements like the following two clips, you can hardly blame any Australian for loving either religion or science! (The science one is not strictly an ad, but still cool.)

If you can not see the embedded clips, check out religion and science.

Monday 13 August 2007

A Terrible Tragedy

One of the great tragedies in modern memory is the extinction of the Yangtze Dolphin.

Indeed, it is something about which mankind should be ashamed.

The Yangtze Dolphin is the first large animal in 50 years to be driven from the planet, and only the fourth entire mammal family in 500 years to be destroyed. What makes it even more devastating is that it is entirely our fault.

Having lived on the planet for 20 million years, time of death was called on Wednesday 8th August with the dolphin officially declared extinct by a report in the journal of the Royal Society, Biology Letters. It is the first species of cetacean (whale, dolphin or porpoise) to be killed off by human activity.

The Yangtze Dolphin was no ordinary dolphin, and the extinction was not of the kind that occurs throughout the natural course of evolution. The Yangtze Dolphin is a freshwater dolphin that separated from other species millions of years ago, and had evolved so distinctly that it qualified as a mammal family in its own right.

The extinction is a dangerous warning. An astounding 10 percent of the world’s population – 600 million people – live in the Yangtze basin. Human activity in the region, including shipping and fishing, is to blame for the dolphin's demise. Container ships and the nets of fishermen have killed off the dolphin, otherwise known as baiji or white-fin. The dangerous fact is that the Yangtze has lost its top predator and the ecosystem is in a state of collapse. The collapse of the Yangtze ecosystem could effect the welfare and livelihoods of these 600 million people.

The Yangtze is a fast flowing river with many unique species. The Chinese alligator, the finless porpoise and the Chinese paddlefish – not seen since 2003 – are also on the brink of extinction.

The extinction notice has come after an intensive six-week search by an international team of marine biologists in December 2006. The last dolphin in a zoo, Qi Qi, lived in the Yangtze port of Wuhan but died of old age in 2002 at 22 years old. Unfortunately, the dolphins never bred in captivity. During the expedition, the scientists counted one large freight vessel every 800m. These container ships destroyed any chance the Dolphin had of navigating by sonar and it ran the risk of being hit by propellers.

The biggest threat came from nets and hooks used by fishermen. The dolphins became entangled or lacerated. Additionally, pollution from the construction of the Three Gorges Dam killed off much of their food source.

Is it the first large animal to become extinct in 50 years. The Caribbean monk seal was last seen in 1952. The three previous mammal families to be killed off are the giant lemurs of Madagascar, the island shrews of the West Indies, and the Thylacine (Tasmanian tiger). Perhaps more famously, the Dodo – a bird – has also recently been wiped from the Earth.

Humans have not of recent times had a great impact on Dolphins. Recently, a crew of Brazilian fishermen was captured on video killing 83 dolphins.

The complete destruction of this unique and high-order animal is more than a complete and utter tragedy, it is a disgrace and something in which we should be ashamed. As an Australian, I am certainly not jumping on my high horse, as Australia does not have a great record in this regard - the Thylacine and indigenous megafauna were killed off mainly by human activity. However, whilst the West has made many many mistakes and sounds hypocritical denouncing mistakes by the developing world, China is no longer a poor country. The development and destruction of the Yangtze represents the massive growth of the Chinese economy, and its terrible after-effects in the same way as deforested America or massively mined Western Australia. One can only hope that the sad loss of the baiji is a reminder to everyone of the destructive environmental events that have occurred in the past, and are very apparently still happening.

A very nice and poignant take on the matter is at Null Hypothesis

The mp3 for this podcast can be found here

Tuesday 7 August 2007

A very cold war

Russia has claimed one of the most inaccessible areas on Earth with a feat of magnificent science and engineering that tests international law, explores hitherto unexplored geography and territory, and asserts the Kremlin’s power in an old-fashioned land grab.

Two minisubmarines planted a titanium alloy Russian flag on the ocean surface, 4261 m under the Arctic Ocean surface at the North Pole. It is the first time the technical feat of reaching the North Pole sea floor in a manned craft has been achieved and is not only a sign of Russian strength, but a clear indication of the fact that Russia wants to claim the possibly resource rich area. The submersibles were named Mir-1 and Mir-2 – clearly Russia has a penchant for calling their scientific explorer craft Mir.

Although politically charged, the trip had a number of scientific aims. Soil and water samples of the seabed were taken during the mission. The mission could also help sort out whether or not the Lomonosov Ridge, which runs between Russia and Greenland and on which the disputed region lies, is actually part of, or connected to, the Russian continental shelf.

Under international law, out to 12 nautical miles, a coastal state is free to set laws, regulate any use, and use any resource. Out to 200 nautical miles, a coastal state has an Exclusive Economy Zone and has sole exploitation rights over all natural resources. If there exists a continent shelf beyond this, then the coastal state can claim exploitation rights out to that point.

This is where the debate lies – the North Pole sits nicely between, and off the continental shelves of, Greenland (Denmark), Russia, Alaska (USA), Canada and Norway. Russia wants to establish that the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of its continental shelf. Indeed, the wording of the United Nationals Law of the Sea is not too clear and allows a country to claim jurisdiction if the geology of the seabed is similar to the nearby continental shelf.

Russia had a claim denied by the UN in 2001, as it appears the ridge is separated from Siberia by a trough. Denmark had their claim rejected for similar reasons. However, the Russian claim looks slightly stronger as the geology on each side of the trough is similar, and it appears that the trough was created by the seafloor moving apart – perhaps the Lomonosov Ridge was once part of Siberia. The 2001 decision did not so much reject the proposition, more that more research needs to be done. Norway also submitted a claim in 2006.

So why bother with the treacherous journey? This was a trip in which the submersibles could easily have missed on return the opening in the ice created by the team’s nuclear powered icebreaker.

The reason, as it so often is these days, is oil and energy. According to the US Geological Survey, around a quarter of the world’s oil reserves are locked up below the icecaps of the Arctic Ocean. In a world where oil could run out sometime in the not too distant future, and alternative energies are not yet solving the world’s energy demands, access to traditional energy sources is vital.

The Arctic floor is also home to massive unexploited gas fields. The Russian Shtokman field has an estimated reserve of 3,200 billion cubic meters of natural gas. Global warming is shrinking the ice that previously covered the surface, and the shrinking pool of global energy resources makes the extremely costly mission of salvaging these resources more profitable. The less ice there is, the easier it is to get at.

Added to the increased energy portfolio is the prospect of controlling a new Northwest Passage across the Arctic year-round.

Norway, Denmark and Canada are also attempting to establish their own sovereignty over the region, whilst the British Navy has increased Arctic patrols. Canadian and Danish scientists are currently mapping the north polar sea on two icebreakers, and Canada recently announced it would spend $7.4 billion Canadian to build up to eight armed ice-breaking naval ships to patrol its Arctic claim.

The Russian voyage is part of the ostensibly science research based Arktika 2007. The crew of MIR-1 comprised the pilot Anatoly Sagalevich, Soviet and Russian polar explorer Arthur Chilingarov, and Vladimir Gruzdev. The crew of MIR-2 comprised pilot Yevgeny Chernyaev of Russia, Mike McDowell of Australia and Frederik Paulsen of Sweden.

The MIR submersibles can dive to a maximum depth of 6000 meters. This makes them two of only five manned submersibles in the world that can dive deeper than 3000 m.

“Our mission is to remind the whole world that Russia is a great polar and research power,” said expedition leader Artur Chilingarov.

Anti-climatically, Gruzdev said:

“There is yellowish gravel down here. No creatures of the deep are visible.”

The mp3 for this podcast is here