In 1928 mainstream media told the world that female runners were unable to compete in long distance races. In 1992, the journal Nature printed a letter predicting that women runners would equal men by 1998.
Neither got it right.
Describing an 800 meter race at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, one reporter cited “11 wretched women” who either did not finish or collapsed at the finish line. Although the report was false, it corroborated a NY Times conclusion that, “This distance makes too great a call on feminine strength,” and resulted in Olympic cancellation of all running events that exceeded 200 meters. It took 60 years for women and men again to have the same Olympic track events.
By contrast, in 1992, the journal Nature, published a letter from 2 physicians at the UCLA School of Medicine. Called, “Will Women Soon Outrun Men?” the letter’s authors used progression rates for world track times to predict that women would soon overtake men. The races they tracked were for the 200, 400, 800, 1500, 10,000 meter events and the marathon. Their conclusion? If women’s rate of increase continued, they would equal men’s marathon times in 1998.
It has not happened yet.
At the NY Marathon, the gap between the men and the women remains:
- The gap was 16 minutes and 43 seconds.
- Geoffrey Mutai’s winning time was 2:08:24
- Priscah Jeptoo, 2:25:07.
As for NY Marathon records:
- Men: 2:05:06
- Women: 2:22:31
Looking at the numbers, the running gender gap, appears to have shrunk and then stabilized since the 1980s. However, journalist David Epstein believes that systematic doping from Eastern Bloc countries was the only reason it diminished. As for the current gap, for 100 to 10,000 meters races, the “rule of thumb” gender gap for elite performance is 11%.
Distance, though, can make a difference. With running, the gap increases while with swimming, it declines.
From the same blog, the following graph uses actual numbers to support the above simplification.
Our bottom line? While it depends on the numbers and the sport, we can pretty much conclude that the sports gender gap is here to stay.
Sources and resources: I recommend reading The Sports Gene (some of my numbers are from Chapter 4) and Graydon Snider’s Blog (source of my graphs). Meanwhile, this academic paper has far more data, covers additional sports, and provides qualifications for the numbers I present. Also, I was concerned that I had never heard of Graydon Snider but felt comfortable citing his conclusions after seeing Runner’s World refer to his blog. Finally, you can listen to a fascinating hour long econtalk interview in which David Epstein discusses The Sports Gene.
You might enjoy this brief and catchy NY Times summary of NY Marathon numbers.