Women Will Outsprint Men at 100 Meters -- Maybe

Study of Olympic times predicts women will be swifter by year 2156

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 29, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Women will be swifter sprinters than men in the 100-meter dash sometime in the next century, some British scientists speculate.

But it's a vision that runs counter to the views of many experts who study athletic performance.

According to a report in the Sept. 30 issue of Nature, an analysis of winning times in the 100-meter Olympic sprints for the last century shows the male-female gap has narrowed steadily.

"Should these trends continue, the projections will intersect at the 2156 Olympics, when -- for the first time -- the women's winning 100-meter sprint time of 8.079 seconds will be lower than 8.089 seconds" for men, the report states.

But Andrew J. Tatem, a computer scientist at Oxford University's department of zoology who authored the report, acknowledged it's really the sort of a back-of-the-envelope exercise that scientists do when time hangs heavy.

"I am no sports scientist or physiologist," Tatem said. "We were basically calculating malaria burden estimates for Kenya and got talking about the upcoming Olympics and decided to write a short piece on what we saw."

One inspiration for the piece was a letter to Nature published in 1992 titled, "Will women soon outrun men?" It was written by Brian L. Whipp and Susan Ward of the University of California at Los Angeles. Their study of five Olympic running events, from the 200-yard dash to the marathon from the 1920s through 1990 found that women's winning times were creeping closer to those of men, with the gap narrowing fastest for the marathon.

Their extrapolation projected that women could be running the marathon as fast as men by 1998 -- which didn't happen -- and that gender differences in all races could disappear by 2050.

Tatem is wary even of his own prediction. The numbers he worked with can be manipulated to show the crossover to faster women sprinters could occur as soon as 2064 or as late as 2788, he said, and other imponderables make even those estimates unreliable.

"Who knows what the rules will be in the future?" he asked. "In the early 20th century, it was considered ungentlemanly to even train for a race. Only until later in the century were spiked shoes made legal. And in Sydney 2000, caffeine was banned; this year athletes could take any caffeine they want. Rules keep changing and barriers keep coming down."

Robert Malina, who did research on the male-female sports gender gap at Michigan State University and now is a research professor at Tarleton State University in Texas, called the new report "interesting speculation" and not much more than that.

The numbers say nothing about muscle mass and other factors that affect athletic performance, Malina said. "I would like to see someone take world-class sprinters and compare them physiologically and psychologically," he said, noting that mental attitude is an important factor in sports performance.

There are also "clear differences in size, muscle mass and related characteristics" between men and women that favor male superiority in sprints, Malina said.

"Women have a better chance to narrow the gap in distance running," he said. "There are many more factors affecting performance -- hemoglobin levels and things like that. Also, you need the proper mindset to be a marathon runner."

Among the most detailed studies of the male-female sports performance gap are those done by Stephen Seiler, an American-born physiologist now at the Institute of Health and Sport at Adger University College in Norway.

When it comes to running, men have a clear advantage because the male hormone testosterone stimulates production of red blood cells, which means men have a greater supply of oxygen, Seiler has written. One of his studies found the gender gap in racing is increasing at all distances except the marathon.

More information

For more on caffeine's effect on endurance athletes, visit Saint Anselm College.

SOURCES: Andrew J. Tatem, Ph.D, computer scientist, department of zoology, Oxford University, Oxford, England; Robert Malina, Ph.D., research professor, Tarleton State University, Stephensville, Tex.; Sept. 30, 2004, Nature
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