Will female athletes ever beat their male counterparts?

The jury is out, but the answer always entails a healthy dose of biology and sociology.

Will female athletes ever beat their male counterparts?
Colleen Nowers
New York, N.Y.

The jury is out, so to speak, with expert opinions ranging from indeed, to not likely, to simply no way. But whichever side you listen to, the answer always entails a healthy dose of biology and sociology. Biology first. Few experts would argue that women will ever compete with men in trials of strength and power, such as the shot put, 100-meter dash, and 50-meter freestyle swim. But a number of scientists assert that women may eventually catch up to men in ultra-endurance

events like marathons and triathlons. The reason, according to Dr. Lisa Callahan, co-founder of the Women’s Sports Medicine Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan and author of The Fitness Factor: Every Woman’s Key to a Lifetime of Health and Well-Being, is that women have a greater resistance to fatigue, a higher percentage of body fat, and a superior ability to burn fat as fuel. “The ability to store and access fat may give women an edge,” she contends.

If that’s the case, then why haven’t women beaten men in, say, the Boston Marathon? The answer may lie in how long women have had access to the sport. In 1967 Katherine Switzer became the first woman to officially enter the Boston Marathon, and she did so by registering as “K. Switzer” to mask her gender. To complete the event, she had to fend off an official who spotted her and tried to rip off her number and literally block her from continuing. Another 18 years passed before women were allowed to compete in the Olympic marathon.

Women and the Olympics have proved a volatile mix since day one. In 440 B.C. Kallipateira disguised herself as a man to watch her boxer son compete. She was caught, and officials then instituted sex tests to exclude women. But in 396 B.C. Princess Kyniska of Sparta became the first female champion, in chariot racing, much to the chagrin of her male competitors. How she was able to circumvent the sex test is unclear. One source merely attributes the victory to “a team owned and trained by Princess Kyniska.” Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, continued the sexist tradition in 1896 by calling the games “the solemn periodic manifestation of male sport.”

Women found their way into the Olympics four years later in golf and tennis, but when it comes to most endurance sports, “women haven’t even had 20 years to learn training techniques and to develop appropriate equipment,” says Callahan. “There is so much we don’t know.”

What we do know, however, is that women are improving faster than men in most endurance events. In marathon swimming, as a matter of fact, they’re already equals (Shelley Taylor-Smith’s 1991 No. 1 world ranking for both men and women attests to that). “Women have been chasing men for years,” jokes Callahan. “One day we might just catch up.”

Edited by Bob Sillery
Research by Michael Moyer, Jill C. Shomer, and Trevor Thieme