Saturday, June 16, 2007

Gender Differences in Athletic Performance

After I heard the radio broadcast of Meseret Defar's fabulous Women's 5000m world-record run yesterday, I recalled a theory stating that due to physiological gender differences (VO2 max, body fat %, efficiency of stride, etc.) there is approximately a 10% difference between men's and women's world records. I also recall hearing that the longer an event, the less difference there are between the two genders; either that, or the advantages women have (smaller mass means less heat required to be expended, fat is burned more efficiently) in the longer events cancel out the disadvantages they may have (see above). I wondered if that was true for the 5000m based on this new record so I did a little analysis.

Meseret's record of 14:16.63 is indeed only 11.6% slower than the men's world record of 12:37.35. Looking at the 5000m, the statistic seem to bear out the theory. How do women compare in other events?

100, 6.9%
200, 9.5%
400, 9.3%
800, 10.7%
1000, 11.4%
1500, 10.6%
Mile, 11.7%
2000, 12.5%
Steeplechase, 12.5%
3000, 9.3%
5000, 11.6%
10,000, 11.0%
20,000, 13.0%
Hour, 15.1%
25,000, 15.1%
30,000, 15.6%
100/110 Hurdles, -5.5%
400 Hurdles, 10.6%
High Jump, 17.2%
Pole Vault, 22.4%
Long Jump, 19.0%
Triple Jump, 18.0%
Shot, 2.2%
Discus, -3.5%
Hammer, 11.5%
Javelin, 37.4%

The statistics highlighted in red are for those events in which there is an advantage of some kind in the woman's event (4kg for the women's shot put compared to 7.26kg for the men's shot put, for instance, or shorter distance and shorter implements in the women's 100m hurdles vs. the men's 110m high hurdles). The women's record is actually faster than the men's mark in some of those events (100m/110m hurdles and Discus) and there is virtually no difference in another (shot put). In one event (the javelin throw) the weight of the women's implement is 0.75% of the men's implement, yet there is a significant disparity of 37.4% between the women's and men's records.
In many of the events without a weight/distance advantage there is indeed a close to 10% difference, especially in the track events.

The statistics for the field events are a big surprise. The disparities are much larger than I thought they would be. At the other end of the spectrum, the % difference of only 6.9% in the 100m was a big surprise to me, too. Was Flo-jo pumped up? There was some controversy about the validity of her performances, even after her death.

The statistics for the longer events are also a surprise. The statistics don't seem to bear out a woman's endurance advantage. Perhaps we need to go beyond the marathon to begin to see the gap closed between men's and women's performances? I also wonder if less experience for women on the international stage accounts for the larger gaps in performance, especially in the pole vault and the triple jump.

Are any these statistics a surprise to you, too? Either way, please comment on this post and let us know!

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