Posted by Dave on June 30, 2011 | 9 Comments
Someone recently pointed to me to this misleadingly-headlined article which revisited the 1980s speculation that women might eventually prove to be faster than men at marathons.
The headline (“Catch her if you can”) and photo caption (“Do women have a secret weapon when it comes to jogging speed?”) seem to suggest that the premise has some factual basis. The rest of the article strongly argues that it does not. While I like catchy headlines as much as the next guy, to my mind this article went a bit too far: It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the fastest women can beat the fastest men in the marathon. Take a look at this graph and you’ll see what I’m talking about:
In the mid 1980s, when Joan Benoit and Grete Waitz were knocking minutes off the women’s record, it was tempting to think that women might eventually surpass men. But this was probably just an example of women finally reaching their potential after being virtually banned from the sport up through the 1960s. There wasn’t even a women’s marathon in the Olympics until Benoit memorably crushed the field in 1984.
Since 1985, the women’s record has continued to improve, but at a much slower rate—less than 6 minutes were knocked off the record by 2003, compared to over 45 minutes in the same period prior to 1985. Meanwhile, the men’s record has continued to improve as well (albeit at a slower rate than the women).
The rapid series of records in the early 2000s by Catherine Ndereba and Paula Radcliffe might also suggest that women are catching up to men, but even in 2003, women were over 10 minutes behind men, and the women’s record hasn’t improved since then.
Personally I admire the amazing athleticism of women marathoners but I think it’s a bit pointless to compare women’s performances to those of men. The best women runners are better than 99 percent of men, but there are so many physical differences between the sexes that you might as well conduct a race between different species of animals.
I think the recent trend of starting the elite women runners before the men in races like Boston and New York is a great way to highlight women’s racing. This means the women leaders really race each other, instead of getting lost in a sea of above-average male recreational runners. I also think women-only races are great for the sport, allowing all participants to share in the experience of running among equal colleagues.
Just as we have separate competitions for men and women in sports ranging from soccer to basketball to billiards, it often makes sense for elite men and women to compete separately.