gender & sport

The Gender Gap 1: Women are getting slower; men are getting faster?

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That's the controversial contention made by exercise scientist Stephen Seiler and writer Steven Sailer in the May-June edition of the internet publication Sportscience News (http: //

The relative slow-down in female performances carefully documented by Seiler and Sailer is a true shock to observers of sport and the general public, since it has been widely believed that the performance gap between the sexes is actually narrowing, not broadening.

The belief that women were catching up with men has steadily gained strength over the past two decades as the ranks of professional female athletes broadened; it got a big boost five years ago when a scientific paper published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature showed that women runners were improving their performances much faster than men.

In that paper ('Will Women Soon Outrun Men? Nature, vol. 355, p. 25, 1992), written by University of California at Los Angeles researchers Brian Whipp and Susan Ward, the progression of world-record running speeds at various distances for men and women was plotted between the years 1900 and 1992. These plots showed clearly that men and women had been increasing world-record speeds at all standard Olympic distances in a steady, linear fashion since the turn of the century. Remarkably enough, the rate of increase turned out to be constant within each sex over a fairly wide range of distances - from 200 metres all the way up to 10 kilometres (e.g., 10-K runners were speeding up just as much as 200-metre sprinters).

Whipp (a former world-champion decathlete) and Ward noted that the rate of increase in speed was much greater over very long distances: Marathoners were speeding up much more, compared to competitors at shorter distances. However, their most intriguing finding was that women were increasing their speeds to a much greater extent than men.

For example, Whipp and Ward found that world-record pace for men, at distances ranging from 200m up to 10,000m, was increasing by about 5.7 to 7.6 metres per minute each decade. In contrast, women were getting faster at more than double the men's rate - from 14 to 18 metres per minute each 10 years.

As mentioned, marathon improvement was considerably greater - around 9.2 metres per minute per decade for the men (compared with 5.7 to 7.6 over shorter distances). However, female marathoners were making astounding progress, quickening their running velocity at more than FOUR times the men's rate with an upturn of 37.8 metres per minute per decade. It was clear that women were 'catching up' with men at a remarkable speed, especially in the marathon.

Women posing as men!
In a bit of reckoning which subsequently stirred up a storm of controversy, Whipp and Ward projected the male-female rates of increase into the future to determine a possible timetable for sexual equality in performance. Their numbers indicated that female marathoners would run as fast as males in 1998 (!) and would catch men at the other Olympic distances sometime between the years 2015 and 2050!
Follow-up analysis of Whipp and Ward's work revealed some of the pitfalls associated with their extrapolations. For example, the rates of increase detected by the two scientists - if held constant - would mean that in the year 2050 internationally elite women would run the marathon at a greater speed than world-class men would sustain in their 800-metre races! Sarcastic analysts of Whipp and Ward's findings predicted that women would disguise themselves as men in 21st-century Olympic competitions in order to increase their chances of winning medals.
Despite such gibes, the belief in gender equity has continued to strengthen since Whipp's paper appeared. A large portion of the public now believes that males and females will eventually compete against each other directly for medals and prizes in important competitions, and a poll taken last year by U.S.News and World Report (July 22, 1996) found that 66 per cent of Americans believe that 'the day is coming when top female athletes will beat top males at the highest competitive levels'.
Such a rosy view of female athletic efforts is far different from the one portrayed by Seiler and Sailer. They acknowledge that women's performances have been moving closer to those of men throughout most of the past century, but they contend that the steep improvement curve for women has suddenly flattened out, and that females are now beginning to fall further behind men, instead of catching up.
Why do they make such a claim? As Seiler and Sailer point out, the best way to compare world-class men and women would be to bring both groups into the laboratory and test them under identical conditions. Since that's not feasible, Seiler and Sailer tried to do the next best thing: they examined the top running performances by men and women over the last 40 years but limited the analysis to running events in which men and women performed under nearly identical conditions. They used Olympic and world track and field championship finals to ensure that males and females were always running on the same track at comparable temperatures and humidities. To broaden the analysis, they used times from the top six finishers of each race, instead of utilizing the 'sample size of one' that a world-record performance represents. Realizing that races from the 1950s and 1960s were hand-timed with stopwatches, a procedure which is notorious for inducing inaccuracies, they determined 'true times' by analyzing films of the events electronically. To make sure that wind conditions didn't throw the numbers off, they obtained wind-velocity measurements from almost every race and corrected the raw times. Sailer and Seiler even altitude-adjusted the times from the Munich and Mexico City Olympic Games. They threw out data when boycotts kept the best runners home (as in the 1980 Olympics). And when unusual occurrences played havoc with the data (like the sudden rainstorm which pelted female runners during the 1960 Olympic 200-metre final), they simply eliminated the numbers.

Smallest in the 80s
Overall, the S-men analyzed the results of 182 championship finals (91 men's, 91 women's) from 12 Olympics and five IAAF world championships held between 1952 and 1996, collecting a total of 1091 data points. They found that the male-female gap was narrowest in the 1970s for 800-metre competitions - and smallest in the 1980s for every other distance except the marathon. Since the 70s at 800 metres, and since the 80s at other distances, the space between men and women has been increasing.
The analysis reveals that the size of the gender difference currently ranges from 9 to 13 per cent across events (e.g., male speeds are 9- to 13-per cent faster than those of females). There is a consistent trend for the gap to enlarge as the distance of the event increases from 100 to 10,000 metres (male 10-K runners have opened a bigger gap between themselves and their female peers, compared to male sprinters). The key finding concerning the relative equivalency of male-female performances is that if the marathon is excluded, the mean performance gap for the other running events has increased from 11% in the mid 80s to 12% in the mid 90s. In other words, in the last 10 years women have fallen another percentage point behind the men.
The marathon, however, is still showing a narrowing of the performance gap in the 90s, owing to slower performance by males (their average time has decreased from 2:11.30 to 2:14.21). Female times are unchanged in the 90s (2:30.02 vs. 2:30.17).
Looking at world records only, S & S found a comparable spreading between females and males. They point out that world records for males have improved by an average of over 1 per cent since 1989 whereas those for females have improved by just .3 percent - or 0 per cent if a single, highly controversial track meet in Beijing is excluded. Seven of the 10 men's world records standing in 1989 have been broken in the 90s, and men's world records set in the 80s had been bettered a total of 23 times by the end of 1996. In comparison, women's world records from 1989 have been broken only once or three times, depending on whether the two controversial Chinese records are accepted.
The idea that men are outstripping women was strongly reinforced during an incredible 12-day stretch this summer (August 13-24) when six men took part in a 'world-record orgy,' smashing seven world records at distances ranging from 800 to 10,000 metres in the process. One of the men, Daniel Komen, a 21-year-old who on August 22 established an almost unbelievable new 5000-metre mark of 12:39.74 (that's 60.8 seconds per 400, less than a tick off 4-minute pace for 1600 metres), had earlier in the summer done what a few short years ago was considered unthinkable - he covered two miles back-to-back, each in less than four minutes, on the way to a sub-eight-minute world record for two miles.
During the same 12-day period, two young men established new world junior records: Japheth Kimutai ran 800 metres in a sizzling 1:43.64, and Noah Ngeny covered 1500 metres in only 3:34.54. Slightly earlier during the summer, one young female did get into the world-record-smashing act: Sally Barsosio ripped through 10K in 31:32.92 at the World Championships in Athens. Overall, for these 10 new world records set in August, eight different men were involved - and only one woman.

Look at the key differences
As Seiler and Sailer put it, 'the women are not still gaining on the men. The gap isn't even stable. The world's fastest female runners have become slower in the 90s! Is the widening of the gender gap in running 'significant'? Statistically, the question is irrelevant. We are comparing two populations of world elite athletes, not samples. The increase in the gap is real.'
Are Seiler and Sailer right? Is the chasm between men and women really becoming wider?
To answer that question appropriately, we first need to understand what really ARE the key differences between male and female athletes. It's important to remember that both groups respond to training in basically the same way. As the amount or intensity of training increases, aerobic capacity (VO2max) shoots upward, body fat tends to decrease and performance improves, regardless of gender. There is scattered evidence that females recover from exceedingly strenuous workouts faster than men (in theory, oestrogen, the primary female sex hormone, may spur muscle recovery because of its unique antioxidant properties); however, the data are as yet somewhat inconclusive.
Although the physiological changes which occur during training are similar in males and females, it's obvious that males frequently achieve better performance times than similarly trained females. Part of the reason for this is that males routinely engage in a perfectly legal, natural form of 'blood doping'. The key male sex hormone - testosterone - promotes the production of haemoglobin, an oxygen-carrying protein found inside red blood cells, and testosterone also increases the concentration of red cells in the blood. The key female hormone - oestrogen - has no such effect. As a result, each litre of male blood contains about 150-160 grams of haemoglobin, compared to only 130-140 grams for females. The bottom line is that each 'male' litre of blood can carry about 11 per cent more oxygen than a similar quantity of female blood.
Note how closely this 'oxygen gap' parallels the performance gap observed by Seiler and Sailer, who found a male-female performance difference of exactly 11 per cent in the 1980s - and 12 per cent today. Is this just a coincidence, or does the 11-per cent enhancement of blood oxygen in males produce the 11-per cent improvement in running speeds? Since oxygen is needed to furnish most of the energy required for endurance exercise, some scientists have suspected that the 11-per cent oxygen difference is the key factor behind male-female performance variation.
Although that's an attractive theory, something else must be going on. For one thing, a close to 11-per cent gap is also observed in the 100-metre and 200-metre sprints, even though oxygen plays little role in furnishing the energy required for those brief events; almost all of the energy is created anaerobically.

To gain further insight into the physiology of male-female performance differences, Kirk Cureton and colleagues at the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Georgia conducted a study several years ago in which they removed just under a litre of blood from each of 10 male athletes - so that their blood haemoglobin concentrations would be the same as those found in 11 female athletes. Three days after the bloodletting, both males and females were tested for VO2max and endurance capacity ('Sex Difference in Maximal Oxygen Uptake', European Journal of Applied Physiology, vol. 54, pp. 656-660, 1986).
The blood removal caused male haemoglobin concentrations to drop to 134 grams per litre, exactly the same as in the female athletes' blood. In addition, male VO2max values (ml/kg/min) plunged by seven per cent and became roughly equivalent to those of the females. However, male endurance capability declined by only five per cent, and males continued to fare better than females during an endurance test which involved pedalling a cycle ergometer as long as possible against steadily increasing resistance.

What about muscle composition?
Some scientists have speculated that key differences in muscle composition or metabolism might also slow females down a bit. However, recent tests have determined that male and female athletes have about the same percentages of 'fast-twitch' and 'slow-twitch' muscle fibres. Other research has determined that females do tend to metabolize more fat than men do during moderate exercise, a potential advantage for females because of the possibility of greater glycogen conservation. However, this difference is unlikely to represent an advantage for females during 10-K and shorter efforts, since the high intensities associated with such competitions tend to deter fat metabolism and the short durations of these events make performance-limiting glycogen depletion unlikely.
In addition, the difference in fat metabolism, while present in novice and moderately trained athletes, may disappear in world-class males and females. Research has shown that highly trained male and female endurance runners break down fat at about the same rate during long-distance running ('Energy Metabolism and Regulatory Hormones in Women and Men during Endurance Exercise,' European Journal of Applied Physiology, vol. 59, pp. 1-9, 1989).
That means that when just two things - percent body fat and VO2max - are equalized, the endurance running performances of similarly-trained males and females should become pretty much the same. Not surprisingly, Russ Pate, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at the University of South Carolina, found that eight male and eight female runners with equivalent VO2max values and nearly equal amounts of body fat (about 17 per cent) had nearly identical finishing times in a 15-mile race ('A Physiological Comparison of Performance-Matched Female and Male Distance Runners,' Research Quarterly of Exercise and Sport, vol. 56, pp. 245-250, 1985).
So, assuming for the moment that the chasm between men and women is indeed widening, what is causing the rift? Sailer and Seiler mention the two other key female 'deficiencies' - less muscle mass and smaller hearts than men, even after correction for smaller body size. However it hardly seems possible that these physical characteristics have changed much in the last 10 years or so.
The 'S men' take a verbal walk through the other factors which are thought to enhance world-class performances. These include population growth, which increases the total number of physiologically unique individuals who are capable of competing well in international competitions, improved nutrition and health, which increases bodysize and optimizes development of the muscular and nervous systems, and better track surfaces and superior, more aerodynamic athletic clothing, which can increase average running speeds. However, all of these developments should aid females just as much as they do males.
They also note that, compared to earlier times, attitudes toward female participation in competitive sports have become considerably more liberal, which has increased the total number of women who train and compete seriously, and that females are also participating in events in which they historically were barred (such as the marathon and 10,000 metres). The former effect should permit the discovery of larger numbers of talented female athletes, and the latter development increases the opportunities for female athletes to choose the event for which they are best suited. However, both of these changes should narrow the gender gap, not widen it.

Continued »

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