Surprisingly, Gender Gap in Olympic Track Is Growing

September 22, 2000

By STEVEN SAILER, UPI National Correspondent

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 22 (UPI) -- The triumph of women as athletes is unmistakable at the 2000 Olympics, where the most talked-about competitor is not a man, but American superwoman Marion Jones, set to compete in the 100m finals this weekend. One observer who views this revolution as more than just fun and games is feminist author Colette Dowling. In her new book The Frailty Myth: Women Approaching Physical Equality (Random House, $24.95), she argues that the closing of the "strength gap" is the final stage in women's liberation.

Ms. Dowling, author of the bestseller The Cinderella Complex, suggests that not only is disparity between men's and women's performances rapidly shrinking, but that the jock gender gap may already be much smaller than we assume. She recently told the Chicago Tribune, "I think what we're headed for here is the recognition of the fact that there are no gender differences in strength; what they are, essentially, are size differences." In a phone interview, the congenial and non-dogmatic author elaborated. She pointed out that in the 1988 Olympic 100 meter races, women's gold medallist Florence Griffith-Joyner actually ran faster than men's champ Carl Lewis -- if you mathematically manipulate for Flo-Jo being about 10% shorter.

But will the best women athletes ever actually rival the best men, with or without size adjustments? So far, women have notched triumphs over the top men in such sports as shooting, dog sledding, equestrian, and drag racing. And in one self-propelled sport -- ocean swimming -- females appear superior to men. Back in 1926, Olympic gold medallist Gertrude Ederle of Brooklyn swam the English Channel almost two hours quicker than the men's record. Since then, women have pioneered many of the spectacular distance swims, such as the first crossing of the frigid, 53 mile-wide Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska.

The much-celebrated feats of today's women athletes make the old "frailty myth" seem almost comical. In the late 19th Century, doctors who specialized in what satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer calls "diseases of the rich" told their well-to-do female patients to spend more time lolling on their chaise lounges. "People thought that if women used their bodies at all vigorously," Ms. Dowling points out, "They would compromise their reproductive systems." Of course, this fad didn't notably drive down the total amount of strenuous labor performed by women. Women who could afford what Dowling calls the "cult of invalidism" would simply hire more poor women to scrub their floors for them.

The frailty myth, though, had a tragic impact on women's freedom to run. Several women runners fainted after finishing the 800 meter race at the 1928 Games. The International Olympic Committee was so aghast that it banned women from racing more than 200 meters. This barrier remained until the Sixties. Yet, by the Eighties women like Flo-Jo and the imposing Jarmila Kratochvilová were running fast enough to set what would be men's records in many smaller countries.

How long until women completely catch up to men in a major sport such as running? Track is particularly useful for investigating this question since it is the most universal sport. Further, as Kenyan-born journalist John Manners, who has trained with most of the Kenyan greats in researching his upcoming book The Running Tribe, says, "Running is the perfect laboratory for testing a hypothesis like Ms. Dowling's because race times provide an absolute basis for comparison."

"For two decades, women's running times improved spectacularly, with almost every record set by an Eastern Bloc athlete," recounts Jon Entine, author of the widely-discussed new book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It. "Scholars trotted out graphs purportedly proving that the performance curves of male and female athletes were destined to intersect before the millennium." Indeed, it has become conventional wisdom that women will eventually match men's best performances. In an opinion poll taken just before the 1996 Olympics, two-thirds of Americans agreed that "the day is coming when top female athletes will beat top males at the highest competitive levels."

Some track experts, however, argue that the perception pendulum has now swung unrealistically far in this direction. In email interviews, a half dozen sports scientists and track journalists all strongly endorsed Ms. Dowling's call for women to participate fully in sports. Yet, they also expressed concern over what they saw as the growth of unrealistic expectations about female potential.

Although Ms. Dowling does not directly call for mixed gender competitions, some scholars worry that if we deny the existence of fundamental biological advantages for male athletes, then we have no logical long-term justification for the sexually segregated sports they see as such a boon to modern female athletes. They fear that if the Olympics were to replace women-only events with gender-neutral competitions restricted merely to smaller entrants from either sex, then women athletes would simply disappear from the world stage. Stephen Seiler, an assistant professor of sports physiology at Norway's Agder U., says, "women-only competition is the measure that has allowed women's sport to grow in a manner that could have never occurred in a mixed gender arena... Mixed gender competitions would just not be fair."

Dr. Tim Noakes, a South African sports physiologist and author of the classic Lore of Running, calls the current belief in biological equality just another example of "the age-old US myth: all is environmentally determined and nothing is in the genes. In truth, women are slower than men by a constant 10-12% at all distances."

Dr. Phil Sparling, professor of exercise physiology at Georgia Tech, says, "In the final analysis it is primarily nature, not nurture, that is responsible for the gender gap in physical performance."

Why are they so sure? Many of these observers note that in direct contradiction of the reigning "equality myth," the gender gap has actually been growing since the Berlin Wall fell. Amby Burfoot, editor of Runner's World magazine and winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon, notes, "Women's track records have not advanced in the last 12 years, while the men's have kept marching forward."

Consider the ten most popular races, from 100 meters to the marathon, where men and women compete under identical conditions. A decade ago, male world records averaged only 10.2% faster than women's marks. As the Sydney track events begin, however, the gender gap has grown to 11.3%.

During the Nineties, men set 38 new world records in these events. In sharp contrast, women broke records only seven times.

While the media hyped the 1996 Olympics as "The Women's Games," women medallists in Atlanta ran a 0.6% slower than in Seoul in 1988. This is bizarre in a sport where slow, steady progress is normally a given. (In comparison, men ran 0.5% faster.)

What happened? Burfoot answers, "I can't think of another reason other than improved drug testing to account for women getting slower." Entine calls many of the spectacular female marks of the Eighties "hopelessly tainted by rampant, state-supported drug abuse."

In the Seventies and Eighties, the formidable frauleins of East Germany broke world records 49 times. Since 1989, however, unified Germany's women haven't set any new marks.

How did the communist nations do it? These totalitarian regimes proudly announced that, unlike other societies that discouraged female athleticism, they scoured their populations for little girls with the talent to win Olympic gold. After the collapse of communism, though, we found out that mobilizing all female athletic potential still wasn't enough. Newsweek reported, "Under East Germany's notorious State Plan 14.25, more than 1,000 scientists, trainers and physicians spent much of the 1980's developing better ways to drug the nation's athletes."

The drugs of choice were steroids -- artificial male hormones. Steroids only moderately improved male runners from Eastern Europe, who failed to set any records during this era. But artificial testosterone's impact on women runners was dramatic. Women get more bang for their steroid buck because they average only one tenth as much natural testosterone as men. The result, according to Dr. Seiler: "Female athletes who no longer looked or sounded like women, but still could not compete against the men. The long term health results of that experiment in gender equalization are only now beginning to be revealed."

Entine points out, "The oldest of the female individual records, Jarmila Kratochvilová's 800-meter win at the 1983 World Championships, remains unsurpassed and maybe unsurpassable. No surprise there: Her body has been bent into a male-like weightlifter's physique by years of drug use. Yet, Kratochvilová, dubbed the "Wonder Woman" of Czechoslovakia, was never caught by the Swiss-cheese drug tests of her day."

The use of performance-enhancing drugs remains a pervasive problem in Sydney. Still, experts say that the stricter steroid tests that followed Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson's scandalous disqualification at the 1988 Olympics discourage current sprinters from bulking up quite so shamelessly to the cartoon superhero proportions favored by some of the European and North American superstars of the Eighties. Also, the most dubious runners of that era were suspiciously late-bloomers. In contrast, Marion Jones was a schoolgirl prodigy. She qualified for the U.S. Olympic team at 16.

What's more, the demise of the communist dictatorships means today's dopers have to operate freelance, without national laboratories helping them evade detection. Today, state of the art cheaters use fewer steroids and more harder-to-detect drugs like Human Growth hormone and "epo." These new drugs affect both sexes more equally, so they don't shrink the gender gap the way steroids did.

Still, track experts suspect there may be some truth to Ms. Dowling's idea that estrogen, the main female hormone, offers a certain kind of edge to women runners. Runner's World editor Burfoot says, "Some scientists are now beginning to put forth theories about an estrogen advantage in extreme endurance events. The world of ultra-marathons (races longer than 26 miles) is beginning to add some credence to the old saw about a women's 'advantage.' A Japanese woman recently ran an ultra in a time just 6+ percent slower than the men's record. Our magazine's statistician Marty Post has hailed it as the greatest women's run ever."

Dr. Noakes concurs, "My feeling remains that the only difference that might be in the woman's advantage is in the very long distances. In events lasting more than 3 days, I think that the best women can match the men." He cautions, however, that the data from these unusual races do not yet clearly support his educated hunch that women should do better than men.

Oddly enough, the gender gap is currently largest not in the sprints where bulging muscles are required, but in the moderate endurance races like the 5,000 meters. Here the gap between the sexes' records is 14.6%. This anomaly probably stems from historic discrimination against women runners in African countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, and Morocco. These high-altitude nations produce almost all the best 5k and 10k male runners. As prejudices have begun to lessen in these countries, however, African women are starting to threaten to become almost as dominant in distance running as their menfolk. For example, 86-pound Tegla Loroupe of Kenya recently broke the women's marathon mark twice.

Many experts are also unimpressed by Ms. Dowling's tentative suggestion that the only biological differences between men and women that matter in sports are in size. They criticize her comparison of Carl Lewis and Flo-Jo, since Lewis was an unusually tall runner. Dr. Seiler states, "If velocity per meter of height is somehow relevant, then compare Marion Jones with Maurice Green, Ato Boldon, Frankie Fredericks, or many other world class male sprinters who are the same height she is or shorter."

Nor do any women equal the best men of the same weight. Manners notes, "Look at the 100-pound Kenyan male miler Laban Rotich, whom I saw set a world altitude record in the 1500m -- 3:33.1 at 5600 feet in Nairobi in 1998. That's more than 17 seconds (8.2%) faster than the rather dubious women's record (3:50.46) set by Qu Yunxia (128 lbs) at sea level in 1993."

The fact that men tend to be taller and heavier then women may be a disadvantage in running. Dr. Seiler says, "Long limbs are hard to accelerate." Dr. Noakes points out that in the longer distances, women generally "enjoy the weight advantage" of being lighter. The lighter runner sheds excess heat faster because she has less body mass relative to her surface area.

In contrast to Ms. Dowling's size adjustments, Dr. Seiler emphasizes that the strength disparity is even bigger than it looks on the track. "The gender gap in strength is far bigger than it appears at the elite level." He notes, "The 10% difference in velocity between males and females is achieved with a nearly 100% difference in strength and power output levels. The physics problem facing the sprinter is that more muscle mass provides more force, but the same muscle mass, being carried along for the ride, requires more force to accelerate. So, the net effect of the best males being much more muscular, and up to twice as strong on many strength measures, is only about a 10% net gain in velocity."

Dr. Seiler concludes, "I hope my two year-old daughter decides to compete in sport, but I also hope for her sake that it is against other girls."

Copyright: UPI, 2000.