What sports can women beat men in?
My wife shocked me today. I heard the effort she was putting in on the Concept 2 rower we have in our home. We try to complete a 2k piece every second day as part of our bid to live longer and healthier lives. I asked her outright why she was pulling so hard and told her that she would suffer later in the training as a result. The thing that shocked me wasn’t her suicidal start to her training but her response, she said that she wanted to beat my time!
To those of you who know, I was able to complete a 2k piece in 6.47 but I am a long way off that now. My times are irrelevant but I if I was being honest, I felt a little frustrated, shocked , angry and also insulted that she might consider being able to beat me. What my wife said got me thinking about what sports can women beat men in and if so, in which sports? Also, I wondered if they are not able to beat the men just how close they really are to them?
Now I have been beaten by women many times, it is nothing new to me. I’ve lost in squash, in tennis, in triathlon, in swimming, in adventure racing and even in fun runs which I can tell you were anything but fun. These were serious events and athletes were there for PB’s and bragging rights. Anyway, the women I lose to are closer to the top of their sport than I am to mine. In my prime I was quite good at a few sports but those that beat me would have been classed as elite athletes.
This discussion isn’t about me, it is about females and are they able to compete equally or even win in sport against the males. Just to prove that there is absolutely no bias in my reporting of the facts going forward I will wear my neutral hat.
In most day-to-day life men and women live, work, and socialise together, sport has generally remained an activity that segregates its competitors by sex. The main reason for this is that men and women are differently built physically. Men are generally taller, heavier, stronger, and quicker than women which means that competing on an equal basis isn’t really possible in most sports. Spoiler alert for later in the film!!!! There are some sports that not only is there fair and equal competition between the sexes but in fact women actually out perform their male counterparts!
I have been involved in sport many years and really have heard every discussion about equality. I know about the tennis argument that women only play best of three sets and men five, yet they get equal prize money. I have listened to US female soccer players quite right demand for equal pay. I 100% agree with equality of opportunity, of income, of law etc but I wonder just how equal elite males and females are in relation to each other in sport and performance.
This is an absolute direct comparison. Now let me tell you, I am a Sport scientist with an honors degree so I know a bit about research, tests of significance, proving and disproving theories, sample groups and control measures. This study is just a shoot from the hip kind of one which looks only at world records in sports and activities that are exactly the same in their structure.
This study will also investigate if females are not equal to their male counterparts, is the gap closing between the sexes and when, if ever in the future they will be able to directly compete and even win in even competition.
I think we first have to understand the difference between males and females. I remember racing against my female cousin as prepubescent kids. My psychologist has told me many times that this is affecting me too much and I really should be able to put it behind me and move on but it still haunts me and I have sleepless nights because I lost to a girl.
Until about the age of 10, girls and boys are, athletically speaking, just about the same. Top running speed is the same for boys and girls, as is top swimming speed, high jumping and general athletic ability. Then puberty happens and testosterone changes everything. By the age of about 14 boys in general have bigger hearts, longer limbs, bigger shoulders, stronger arms and a greater muscle mass. They become more powerful and faster. I won’t go through the changes that girls encounter but needless to say their development doesn’t aid their sports performance as much as it does for the boys.
This study is just about adult male and female world records in some mainstream sports in a cross section of distances. I will also include a little research into the history of the male and female world records in those sports through their ages. The time and distances will be measured as a percentage of each other. If both the male and females are equal, as this study is about the equality of women in sport they would get a percentage of 100 compared to the men. If the female world record is slower or shorter in distance then the percentage will be less than 100.
If an all-elite male football, basketball, volleyball, tennis (pair) or hockey team played a comparable elite female team under the same rules, regulations and conditions there would only be one outcome. If the track and field 100m sprint was a mixed event in the Olympics, I am afraid there would be no females competing at the games, let alone challenging for the medals. Same for the Tour de France, one big open event and if the cyclists were selected for their teams purely on ability, there would be no females in the race, even for roles such as domestiques. There is little debate to had about all of this.
Generally, most sports segregate men’s and women’s competitions to ensure the sport is competitive, more enjoyable and safer to play. However, not all sports completely segregate male and female competition. There are some sports that men and women compete together and they do this in two different ways.
Firstly, some sports have mixed events. This is where men and women form a team (usually, but not always, a pair) they then compete against another mixed team. Obviously, this way, men and women can compete together and against each other in a fair way as both teams feature the same number of male and female players. Some of these sports are badminton, tennis, luge, cheerleading, adventure racing and ice skating. However even these sports play to the strengths of the gender. In badminton, often the male will play at the back and the female is the net player, in ice skating it is the female who is carried, lifted or thrown in the routines.
There are then the truly mixed sports where men and women compete against each other regardless of sex. In these sports, the physical differences between men and women are deemed not to have any effect on the outcome of any competition. They are equestrian, which is an Olympic sport in which competitors ride horses, equestrian consists of 3 events namely dressage, jumping, and eventing. You will amazed later in the film when I reveal at least 2 other sports in which there is true competition between the sexes.
There were attempts in some sports to have men and women compete against each other such as the Tornado class in sailing and although some women did get results in races, only 5 women ever competed in the Olympic event. The tornado class was replaced by the Nacre 17 class in the Olympic games. The nacre 17 is a similar multihull boat type but crewed by a mandated mixed team, however these boats are adapted with lower sheet loads to assist the mixed gender teams and in particular the physically weaker females. In tennis we had the battle of the sexes. The ‘battle of the sexes’ is a title given to three notable tennis matches. The first match was between Bobby Riggs and Margaret Court, over the best of three sets. The result saw Riggs beat Court convincingly in straight sets. The second was a nationally televised match between Riggs and Billie Jean King, over the best of five sets. Billie Jean King revenged Margaret Court’s defeat and she won in straight sets. The final match was between Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova, over the best of three sets and a set of hybrid rules which favoured the female player, which was dubbed ‘The battle of champions’. Despite the rules, which allowed Connors only a first serve and Navratilova being able to hit into some areas of the doubles court Connors won the final battle of the sexes five and two in straight sets. Needless to say these were just exhibition games and not a serious attempt of non-segregated tennis.
So really it is only equestrian events in the normal mainstream popular sports that men and women compete equally in.
There are some sports in principle that women should be able to compete equally against the men. An example is darts, and in 2020 Fallon Sherrock, made history by beating two men at the PDC World Darts Championship before being beaten in the third round. Other sports such as snooker, crown green bowls, archery, shooting could (in principal) be mixed but they are all normally segregated sports. Horse racing and motorsport are mixed events and offer the potential for equal competition but they are sports dominated by males. I could easily go into reasons why it is the way it is and might even make a film about it in the future. That reminds me, I have made a commitment to produce sport related films and really need the support for this channel. If you could like, subscribe and even turn on those notifications it would really help the channel and ensure I can continue to make quality films for everyone. Thankyou very much.
To the uninitiated, gymnastics is a sport that could see fair competition but the men compete in 6 disciplines and the women 4. There are also different disciplines for each, the male gymnasts compete on the floor, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars and horizontal bar. In the women’s division, there are the vault, uneven bars, beam and floor. Whilst many might argue that the women look more graceful, I’m afraid to say the men would prevail due to their greater strength, speed and therefore power.
Lets get on with the analysis and see if results reveal anything interesting?
How can we compare between the performances of males and females in sports. There are some sports that all competitors irrespective of age or gender could compete and can be compared equally for example anything that has a distance and no handicap system. Like the 100m sprint on the track, or the 200m butterfly in a swim meet. There are many other sports like rowing with its traditional 2000m distance.
Some sports look similar but there are small differences such as the weight of the object thrown, like the javelin, discus or shotput. In golf, ladies play off different tees to the men and in effect play shorter holes. In cross fit they have scaling , which is where the ladies lift lesser weight than their male counterparts. We cannot directly compare the performance of men v women in these and many other sports.
So, what I have done is I have looked through some mainstream sports and directly compared the world records of the males and females. In the first few I have investigated the progression of world records, since records were first reliably recorded and we will see if there is anything interesting to gained from the results that are demonstrated on graphs.
So lets start with the 100m sprint. One of the original races in the modern Olympics, an extremely competitive event and one that is truly worldwide. To be successful in the sprint you need a quick reaction time, speed and power.
The first ever mens 100m world record was 10.8 set by Luther Cary of the USA on the 4th of July 1891 in Paris. The first Olympic champion was Thomas Burke (of the USA), who won it in 12 flat in the Athens games of 1896.
The women didn’t start competing until 1922 and it was a further 6 years until they competed in the Olympics with USA’s Betty Robinson being the first female Olympic 100m, champion.
The first directly comparable time was therefore in 1922 and the difference between Marie Mejzlíková’s 13.6 and Charley Paddock’s 10.4 is 76%. Calm down all you math / graph/ science type of people. I know this time of 13.6 is a kind of rouge value but it is the first recorded. Following the initial record, the ladies time lowered at a faster rate than the males over the same time.
I won’t name all the names on this graph because it is the time and its comparison, we are interested in. Also, apart from the initial first ever world record, I have just included the records at the end / or turn of each decade. Obviously, there were many more world records set between these times shown. Jesse Owens ran 10.2 whilst upsetting Hitler in 1936 (by the way his name wasn’t Jesse, it was ?? and shortened to Jessie), there have been about 98 different world records set for the men alone. Some athletes such as Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt even broke their own world records.
The current world record holders are Florence Griffith-Joyner’s 10.49 set way back in 1988 and Usain Bolt’s 2009 time of 9.58seconds. The comparison % here is 91%
I’ve included all the raw data used on the graph for you pause the video and peruse if you want to.
Next to the high jump. A straight comparison of jumping over a bar using any technique permitted at the time. High jumping wasn’t one of the original sports in the 1896 Olympics.
The first men’s world record holder was George Horine who cleared 2.00m in 1912 and the ladies first ever world record holder was Nancy Voorhees who cleared 1.46m in 1922.
The first comparison able to be made was therefore in 1922 and 1.46 as a percentage of the mens record at the same time which was 2metres and 1cm was 73%. Once again, the graph shows a fairly linear improvement of both the male and female records through the decades. Clearly the gap between the males and females is getting smaller and the current world record holders in 2021 are Stefka Kostadinova of Bulgaria who jumped 2m 09cm in 1987 and Cuba’s Javier Sotomayor who cleared 2m 45cm in 1993. The high jump ladies reach just 85% of the mens height.
Onto the Marathon next
26 miles and 385 yards of endurance running. Although the story is ancient, the marathon is very much a modern event and was competed in the first modern games in 1896. Somewhat unbelievably it wasn’t until the 1984 LA games that women competed for the first time.
The history of world records is also a not as straight forward as other sport. The first ever recognized world record for the females was set in 1918 by the French lady Marie Louise Ledru. Her time was 5 hrs 40 minutes. A lot of female world records were set or run on the same courses as men and timed independently as women were often not permitted to race. In my book ‘Interested in Sport’ there is the story of Kathrine Switzer entering the 1967 Boston marathon and being disqualified for being a women. Also, the race organiser tried to physically remove her from the race. The marathon graph shows the development of the world records between men and women. Both obviously getting quicker, the men once again in quite a linear fashion, the women after about 1980 and with regular competition see something similar. The first comparable date was 1918 when Marie Louise Ledru’s 5 hours 40 was 46% of Italy’s Umberto Blasi’s 2.38.
Current world record holders are Brigid Kosgei who ran 2.14.04 in 2019 and Eliud Kipchoge who ran 2.01.39 in 2018. Of course, we all know that Eliud was the first man to run sub 2 hours for the marathon distance in managed conditions sponsored by INEOS and with pace makers, banked curves and the latest running shoes. This graph is for ratified world records under normal racing conditions. Kosgei’s time is 91% of Kipchoge’s.
In the sport of rowing, the distance raced is normally 2000m. There are a variety of classes in rowing, singles, pairs, 4 and 8’s. There are different the techniques of sculling and rowing. Some rowing events even have an extra person in the boat called the cox. Their job mainly being to steer the boat. There are even lightweight and heavy weight categories. The fastest and blue riband event is the heavyweight rowing 8’s.
The current female world record holders are the Americans and in 2013 and they crossed the line in 5minutes .46.68. The fastest men ever are the Germans who in 2017 took just 5 minutes 18.68 to complete the 2000m distance. Compared against each other the women are at 92%
Lets look at swimming now
I decided upon the 50m freestyle, the 200m breaststroke and the 1500m as a cross section of swimming events. I just assumed I would see the greatest swimmer and Olympian of all time Michael Phelps as the record holder for the 50m free. Apologies to Michael but I will probably complete a film about him not only talking about his 23 Olympic Golds but the probable hundreds of other medals he has won at other major championships, galas or meets. The world records analysed are all long course, which are set in an Olympic 50m length pool as opposed to a smaller 25m short course pool.
In 2009 Brazilian Cesar Cielo took just 20.91 seconds to swim the 50m freestyle. In 2017, the Swede Sarah Sjöström completed the same distance in 23.67. Sarah’s time is 88% of Cesar’s.
Next to the 100m breaststroke. In 2017 Adam Peaty of the Great Britain completed 2 lengths of the pool in a time of 56.88, the fastest female over the same 100m distance is Lilly King from the USA who, in the same year swam 1.04.13. This comparison between these times is 89%.
In the 1500m freestyle we see something a little bit different to all we have investigated thus far.
The female world record holder is Katie Ledecky of the USA who, in 2018 swam the distance in 15.20.48. The male fastest is (the controversial) Sun Yang from China, in 2012 he swam the 1500m in a time of 14.31.02.
Katie is up 95% of Yang’s world best.
Although not mainstream, the physical feat of ultra-long distance open water swimming sees women competing and often beating males. Swimming the Channel, the relatively narrow 21 mile waterway that separates England from France is a one of the most popular challenges. So much so that swimming it once is hardly newsworthy, back-to-back became the new challenge, then some got bored with the relative 42-mile warmup and did 3. There is just one person on earth who has ever swam the Channel 4 times continually and you guessed it, she was female and her name. ??? She competed the 84 miles in ?
The Big Dog Backyard Ultra is an ultra-endurance race which sees competitors run as far as they can for 60 hours. In 2019 Maggie Guterl, became the first woman to win the Big Dog Backyard Ultra by covering a staggering 250 miles in 60 hours. However, Belgium’s Sabbe Karel restored male pride and ran the same race a year later covering 312.5 miles which is about 503km in the time permitted. Maggie did say that she had more in her and was able to go more than 300miles!
There is research that shows that on average women at in races in excess of 200 miles go from being slower than males to being about 0.5% quicker. Once again there are many factors that affect the comparison but one thing for sure is that men and women become competitive with each other at extreme ultra distances. Once all the power, speed and strength is taken from the event and we are left with pure endurance, the physiological makeup of the women with estrogen allows for them to continue longer at the slower paces.
I am nearly complete on this very basic analysis film but the obvious question I have asked myself and I can hear you all now thinking. Will the women ever be able to catch, compete with, or beat the men in other sports, what about the mainstream Olympic sports? Theoretically we can use graphs to predict the future. By running a continuation line through the data, we could (in principle) predict when the women will be as competitive as the men. Let’s use the 100m graph as an example. So (using some flawed logic) the two lines will meet and this is the point where the sexes are truly equal in sprinting performance. According to this graph women will be on a par with the men by 2035 and after that, beating them. Also, the world record using that somewhat flawed logic would be in the very low 9’s for both male and female. That would mean that the sprinters both male and female would have to be about 4 metres ahead of Usain Bolt when he was at his best. Is that going to happen? I don’t think so, we are reaching the limits of normal human performance and gains in any of the mainstream sports are marginal. Records will continue to be broken but I’m afraid to say that the men will continue to be quicker, more powerful and stronger than females. I don’t see any chance that in my lifetime any significant change in the segregation of sports in any purpose or meaningful way will happen. Hey, but we all have our thoughts on the subject, let me know what you think?