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

By Owen Anderson for peak performance

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.

Can the answer be drug testing?
Seiler and Sailer then focus on the factor which they believe is most responsible for the 'decline of female athletes' - drug testing! As they point out, random, surprise drug checks were introduced into the world of track and field in 1989, 'at least partly in response to the embarrassment of the Ben Johnson case in the 1988 Olympics'. Drug use, say Seiler and Sailer, benefits females more than males; therefore its supposed abolition as a result or random testing has hurt elite female performances far more than those of their male counterparts.

Critics of their contention can point out that drug testing actually took place as far back as the 1964 Olympic games. That being true, why should the current drug-testing strategies have such a powerful, recent effect on the gender gap? Seiler and Sailer reply that the early tests lacked enough sensitivity to truly detect 'dopers', and also point out that tests were usually only associated with major events, allowing athletes to train throughout most of the year under the influence of performance-enhancing drugs and then 'get clean' in time for a big competition.

To summarize, they believe that the initial narrowing - and the current widening - of the gender gap 'is largely a consequence of the rise and fall in the illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs from the 60s to the 90s'. To put it in a nutshell, as female athletes began using steroids, they became more like men and performed accordingly. As soon as drug testing stopped such doping, the women became less like men and their performances slumped.

Cocaine and brandy cocktails
Are Seiler and Sailer right? Well, it's important to bear in mind that the use of drugs to enhance physical performance is not such a new thing. The ancient Greeks used stimulants before and during athletic competitions, and it's believed that the Aztecs used a cactus-based stimulant to improve distance-running capacity. Competitive swimmers in the Netherlands in the 1800s used caffeine to perk up their performances, and during the same time period many Europeans believed that the ingestion of sugar cubes dipped in ether could promote athletic prowess. Cocktails of cocaine and brandy were popular among competitive athletes about 100 years ago.

Steroid-like compounds similar to those which have speeded up Olympic athletes were first synthesized in the 1930s, and their initial systematic use to boost performance may have been by German troops at the 'Battle of The Bulge' in 1944. It's generally believed that Olympic athletes first began using steroids in the late 1940s to early1950s, and that the intake amounts of these ergogenic drugs have steadily increased over time.

If S & S's contention is true, then either male athletes have abstained totally from using drugs while their female counterparts have doped wildly (this would explain how females, especially from the so-called Communist bloc, could suddenly approach male performances in the 1970s when drugs became very popular - and then fall back when the drugs were taken away), or else males and females have both been taking performance-enhancing drugs, but males have gained little benefit while the females were 'going through the roof'.

It's very unlikely that either of these hypotheses is accurate. Drug use by males in sports other than running has been documented to be widespread; it's unlikely that male runners would remain snow-white. Furthermore, the changes associated with steroid use - greater muscle mass, heightened anaerobic power, increased fatigue resistance, and improved recovery from workouts - are extremely attractive to male runners, making the drugs very hard to resist. Indeed, close observers of the international running scene contend that drug use by male athletes is rampant.

With regard to the second point (that males benefit little from drugs, while females gain a lot), if the drugs indeed had little impact on male performances, it's difficult to understand why their use would have become so widespread. In power events, increased muscle mass can benefit even already highly muscular men; in endurance efforts, greater fatigue resistance and superior recovery are extremely beneficial, even to the male athlete who is already extremely strong in those areas. Even a second or two of improvement can mean the difference between a world championship and an 'out-of-the-money' finishing position.

In short, steroids can transform the elite male athlete into a sort of 'superman' and the elite female into a kind of 'superman-woman'. It's illogical to suggest that a curtailment of doping had little effect on males, allowing them to continue to blaze their way to new records, while that same curtailment caused women's performances to stagnate.

Drug testing doesn't work
It may also take a leap of faith to believe that the new drug testing has actually had much impact on drug use. Instead, it's more likely that athletes have become much more sophisticated about concealing their doping. Insiders reveal that this is the case, and even the athletes themselves sometimes refer to it, although their tattling often occurs after retirement (note Carl Lewis's recent announcement that U. S. athletes have turned the United States into 'the East Germany of the 1990s'). Political and financial considerations suggest that the drug testing may in reality have little bite. Would the organizers and promoters of the multi-million pound Olympic Games really reveal that many of their high-profile gold medallists were in reality nothing more than druggies?

The notion that drug testing is behind the increased gap also seems ridiculous when one takes a look at the Kenyan men and women. Both are superlative, but the gap between the Kenyan males and females has grown even wider than the gender disparity in other parts of the world as Kenyan males have smashed one world record after another. Yet it is an absolute certainty that both Kenyan males and females have been 'clean' since Kip Keino got the Kenyan ball rolling back in the 1960s.

Note, too, that Whipp and Ward's data demonstrated that the remarkable increase in female running speeds started far before the heavily drugged 1970s, suggesting that drugs weren't required for women to excel. Further-more, the rate of increase in the 70s and 80s was the same as it had been in prior years, despite all of the new performance-enhancing drugs.

Consider the Kenyans
However, if the widening gap IS a reality, then what other factors could account for it? Bear in mind that the newest world records have all been set by African men. And most of these African men have been Kenyan men. Out of the nine new men's senior and junior world records we mentioned earlier, six were set by Kenyan men and two were established by a man of Kenyan origin who is now a citizen of Denmark; only one of the nine was attained by a non-Kenyan - the 5-K mark reached by Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia (which, incidentally, was shattered nine days later by Daniel Komen of - you guessed it - Kenya).

On the distance side of things, it is primarily the Kenyan men who have widened the gap between male and female performances. As we mentioned earlier, looking at the Kenyan situation is an instructive way to examine whether the widening of the gap is really the result of drug prohibitions, as Seiler and Sailer suggest.

It is an absolute certainty that the Kenyan men and women have not been using drugs - either recently or in the past. For one thing, 'sports medicine' - and its associated pharmacopoeia - does not exist in Kenya: Most of the Kenyans would simply not have access to performance-enhancing drugs. In addition, the Kenyan runners have an abhorrence for putting anything strange and unusual, including drugs, into their bodies. It is hard to even get them to eat dessert! That's why the Kenyans have always tested 'clean' when they have been examined (Editor's note: Kenyan five-time world champion and Olympic gold medallist John Ngugi was temporarily banned from the sport because he refused to urinate into a bottle for a drug tester, not because he was a user; double-world-record-holder Komen tested positive for caffeine, but it was determined that the excess caffeine in his urine came from that highly ergogenic and unusual substance, Coca Cola).
The Kenyan men are opening up a chasm between their performances and those of their own countrywomen, and their sizzling new world standards are making overall men's performances look better and better, compared to those of women. Yet drugs - or lack of same - have absolutely nothing to do with these phenomena.

So what's really going on?
For one thing, the Kenyan men are training harder than the Kenyan women do. That doesn't necessarily mean running at relatively faster speeds, compared to the women; of course the men are absolutely faster, but both groups may train at a similar percentage of VO2max (remember that males' VO2max values are elevated compared to females). However, the Kenyan men tend to run more repetitions of difficult intervals or hill climbs - sometimes 50-per cent more. And their weekly mileage levels can be 25-per cent greater, too.

In addition to the heavier work load, one of the key factors to take into account is the fact that many of these barrier-breaking African men are 'training in packs': they are working together to push men's running standards to what seemed to be unreachable levels. Komen, the fellow with the unbelievable new two-mile and 5-K marks, trains incredibly hard under the protective wing of another Kenyan male, Moses Kiptanui, who is himself a former world record holder in two different events.

'He listens because he wants to know more - because he wants to be the best. He can break a record almost any time he really wants to,' says Kiptanui of Komen. 'I follow in his footsteps; that's why I have succeeded,' says Komen about Kiptanui.

It's no coincidence that two of the other new Kenyan record-breakers, Wilson Boit Kipketer and Bernard Barmasai, have also trained with Kiptanui, or that other Kenyan men who have recently made breakthroughs, like Lameck Aguta (winner of the 1997 Boston Marathon after several previous, unsuccessful attempts) have been training with Kiptanui. Similarly, Dieter Baumann set a new European record over 5,000 metres after training with Kenyan men.

The success of the runners who work with Kiptanui doesn't mean that Kiptanui is the 'god of training,' an all-knowing figure who can put almost anyone on the path to a world record with the right workouts. What it means is that these men have been using principles which have actually been popular in the women's rights movement, challenging each other to become better and 'mentoring' each other - teaching each other what it really takes, physically, mentally, and emotionally, to make it to the top.

There is a synergy in such personal and training relationships which can have a huge impact on performances. Workout quality rises to a new level because an individual is training with other incredibly fit runners, yet recoveries are also better because at least one person in the group (in this case Kiptanui) is wise enough to know that proper training combines both punishing work and gentle rest and realizes that a macho approach to training - trying to kick someone's butt every day during workouts - is a recipe for BO (burn-out), not PB. Actual racing strategies are also superior because they are plotted with someone who has won crucial competitions and/or shattered world records.

The Moroccans, too
This group approach is no doubt one reason why Moroccan men have also enjoyed immense recent success. The Moroccan government has opened two new training centres within Morocco at which their top athletes train together under the tutelage of sports scientists. Moroccan officials claim that women will benefit from these facilities as much as men, but so far social strictures have limited the development of Moroccan female athletes, and it is the men who have been burning their way to fast times and occasional world records.

These kinds of beneficial relationships have worked on a more limited scale among some female runners. For example, Joyce Chepchumba, a very fine yet not previously overpowering runner, won this year's London Marathon by beating the very tough Liz McColgan on her home turf. Joyce had been mentored for at least two years prior to London by her more successful and probably physiologically superior partner, Tegla Loroupe, and that alliance is undoubtedly a key reason for Joyce's success. Tegla herself has the best chance of any female runner of shattering Ingrid Kristiansen's 16-year-old world marathon record, but she has no Kiptanuis or Komens to train with.

'Very few of the Europeans are training in groups,' says Kiptanui. 'Those who are, such as the Spanish and Germans, have benefited recently. The Spanish took gold and silver in the World Championships Marathon in Athens, and the Spaniard, Fermin Cacho, was second in the 1500-metre final. The German, Dieter Baumann, who visited Kenya last winter, recently broke the European 5,000-metre record. There are many advantages to training in groups.'

Indeed there are. It was immediately after the Kenyan AAA began putting their best athletes together in training groups prior to the World Cross- Country Championships (back in the 1980s) that the Kenyans began dominating world cross-country (that domination now includes 12 consecutive men's team championships). If groups of female athletes began working together, offering each other total support as well as exciting challenges, we might see the gender gap beginning to close back up again - along with a spate of new women's world records.

It's also fair to say that only a very small minority of the world's female population has been given a true opportunity to compete athletically, and that overall the athletic potential of females has been fostered and supported much less, compared with males. And within countries in which males and females are running impressively, there is usually much more pressure on females to forgo running and follow other, more traditional pursuits. When these situations are corrected, it's highly unlikely that the gender gap will widen; in fact, it's much more likely that we will see women shrinking it.


copyright 2005 - Team David Salon