/ 8 August 2012

Olympics medal count excludes sex

The Olympics is an ideal opportunity to promote safe sexual behaviour.
The Olympics is an ideal opportunity to promote safe sexual behaviour.

"We made Sebastian Coe blush at a press conference, bless him," Lisa Power of the Terence Higgins Trust said. It was in 2007, two years after London won the bid to host the Games, and there was still plenty of time to talk about the "number one Olympic sport that won't get a gold medal".

The logistics of sexual health are far more complicated than the Olympic lanes and start years before the athletes arrive. Before any of that, the construction workers arrive.

Power said: "There were a number of articles that suggested that all these foreign workers were going to come in and infect us. We were much more worried about people coming here and getting STIs [sexually transmitted infections] from our population. In any international event, it's an exchange of risk. Generally, people are more at risk in London than they are in wherever they were before. We're the STI capital of Europe."

That misapprehension resolved, there is the fact that the Games are good for spreading a safer-sex message to the population at large, partly because athletes have really good condom uptake and partly because of the carnivalesque atmosphere.

"That's not just the athletes, that's everybody. There's plenty of research evidence showing that people on holiday are more risky than they are at home – that's whether you're at the Olympics or in Ibiza. You would be amazed at the high-risk behaviour that takes place at the World Aids Conference," Power said.

The trust has a good record of using the Games as a way to discuss safe sex and annoying the International Olympic Committee at the same time. It is really easy – you just arrange some condoms to look like the Olympic logo. It makes them livid.

There is not much research data on athletes or anyone else contracting STIs while they are at the Games – normally they would show symptoms only after they got home. But, said Powers, "what we do know is there's a huge appetite for condoms in the village".

This was true even in Salt Lake City, the Mormon heartland, and in Sydney, where the Olympic village ran out of condoms. Indeed, one of the reasons London started planning so early was that one of the senior members of the health promotion committee had been involved in the "mopping up, as it were, after Sydney".

Organisers take their responsibilities to the athletes very seriously in this regard, although being discreet about their legendary shagging – it was reported that the gay dating app Grindr crashed after the athletes arrived.

Folds of condoms
Power said at the Manchester Commonwealth Games in 2002 the the condoms were wrapped in gold to look like medals.

But Pam Venning, who co-ordinated the health services for those Games and for the London organising committee, said tetchily: "No, we just had ordinary condoms. We had folds of condoms."

Nevertheless, uptake is good. "But they don't have to get the condoms from us," Venning said. "We put them out and they can get them from wherever they like. I don't know who takes them. It could be anybody."

There are 17500 athletes in the village, where they also have pool tables for the ones who are not having sex.

And what is the magic number,for the London Games? A whopping 150 000 condoms – unbranded. If anyone says the Games have been sponsored to hell, do not believe it. – © Guardian News & Media 2012