No show without flow

If we asked you to name history’s greatest sporting moment, what would you choose? One thing’s for sure, whatever any of us picked, given its massive influence on athletic performance, you can bet testosterone was central to it.

When Roger Bannister ran the first 4 minute mile, fair to say the T flowing through his system wasn’t Earl Grey. Muhammad Ali’s win at the Rumble in the Jungle may have gone down as a KO, but hormonally speaking, it was a definite TKO. When Tiger Woods blasted his ball 498 yards for the longest drive in PGA Tour history, he needed more than just one kind of T in his golf bag.

So important to athletic success is testosterone, some contenders go to extreme lengths to up theirs.

That’s why T – artificial in this case – also has a hand in some of sport’s darker moments. The fall of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong for example. Or the systematic use of steroids for decades in Major League Baseball.

Now, somewhere in between those two extremes, we have testosterone to thank for another striking sports moment. Striking in every sense of the word.

Enigmatic French soccer player, Eric Cantona’s infamous 1995 flying kung fu kick of a spectator was the fault of high T. According to the man himself at least.

Seeing red

For those of you who don’t follow soccer, here’s what all the fuss was about.

Back in the Premier League season of 95/96, Manchester United were flying high. Cantona’s on field flair had led the team to successive league titles in the previous two years, the first of which ended a 26 year drought.

Chasing a third championship in a row things went smoothly for the first half of that season, then on the 25th of January came an away match against London side Crystal Palace.

Palace player Richard Shaw marked Cantona closely, frustrating him and preventing him from making his usual impact on the game. Eventually the Frenchman was shown a red card for a kick on Shaw. This isn’t the kick we’re interested in however.

On his way down the tunnel Cantona reacted to abuse shouted at him by Palace fan, Matthew Simmons, by launching a kung fu kick and following up with a flurry of punches.

Simmons allegedly said “F*#k off back to France you French [email protected]#tard!” But he claims he ran 11 rows of stairs to shout, “Off, off, off! An early bath for you, Mr Cantona!” Hmm… Hardly Yani or Laurel, is it?

Cantona was banned from the sport for 9 months and given 120 hours community service by the Football Association. United would go on to lose the league that year to Blackburn Rovers.

To clear up questions about his actions the Man United star gave a press conference, saying only:

“When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”

Get out of jail T card

Amazingly, for a few picky pundits this didn’t put the whole incident soundly to bed. So 20 odd years and one Shia LaBeouf cover version later, Cantona, now an actor, has returned to the topic with a new take.

He’s laying the blame squarely on testosterone.

According to UK newspaper the Daily Star, Cantona says:

“The kung fu kick wasn’t me, it was the testosterone – but I don’t regret it. I wouldn’t have done it harder, but I wouldn’t have done it any less hard either.”

He also appeared to suggest age and a family had mellowed him somewhat:

“To me, control is boring. At 10 o’clock, we put the children to bed. I don’t get angry with them or lose my temper with them, or lose my temper at all.”

So is high T really solely responsible for moments of madness? The research says ‘non monsiour!’

Fair challenge?

The stereotype of the testosterone fuelled beefcake with big muscles and a small fuse is still a popular one. In truth though T only radically affects mood if we’re topping ourselves up synthetically with more than our systems can handle.

Natural testosterone is needed for aggressive, even violent, behavior, but simply being at the high end of normal isn’t enough to set people off. The hormone has a facilitative relationship with anger. It certainly enables it, but doesn’t necessarily trigger it.

Think of it like oxygen’s relationship with fire. Fire needs oxygen to burn but generally speaking, oxygen doesn’t cause things to spontaneously combust.

Two main catalysts are an already aggressive nature and surroundings. Environment is particularly important. Yes, high T may increase competitiveness, but we tailor our behaviour to situations.

Want to be the big dog in a prison? Testosterone will make you plenty fighty. But kneeing a rival in the balls during a finely poised business deal would be unproductive, so even with our T up it shouldn’t result in aggression.

One interesting study from Japan in 2017 used rugby players to test how T levels combined with social status affects behaviour.

Players took part in a One Shot Ultimatum Game and responses were matched to hormone levels.

An Ultimatum Game involves a proposer and a responder. The proposer suggests how money should be split between the two and the responder either agrees and the split is made or refuses and nobody gets anything. The proposer then must judge how far to push in their favor without losing everything. Responder must decide how little to accept just to get something.

Researchers found men with high T and a higher social status were more likely to take risks and push the limits. However players with high T and a lower group status were more submissive and prepared to back down, rather than being confrontational.

“Our results suggest that testosterone may enhance socially dominant behaviour among high-status persons, but strategic submission to seniority among lower-status persons.”

Basically playing a smart long game to try and charm your way to the top.


Can-tona or Cant-ona?

So where does all that leave our pal Cantona?

Well, we’ve seen that high testosterone alone doesn’t mean you’ll suddenly try and batter all your problems. So, sorry, we can’t accept this new excuse.

But we’ve also had an insight into why he may have acted how he did. Eric Cantona was a passionate, slightly off the wall, flair player. With his status as arguably the most important member of a world famous club, his T up and the pressure on, all the ingredients were there. And the pot was boiling.

By purely blaming high T though, good ol’ Eric has put his foot in his mouth almost as effectively as he put it in Matthew Simmons’ mouth back in January of ’95.

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