Posted by Dave on September 1, 2011 | 8 Comments
I’ve heard it mentioned several times that “women have it easier than men” when qualifying for the Boston Marathon. The argument usually goes something like this: Boston should be accepting the same proportion of talented male runers as female runners. But women get a 30-minute advantage in every age group, when the men’s world record in the marathon is only about 11 and a half minutes faster than the women’s record. It seems like a fairly compelling argument. If men are only 11 minutes faster, why should women get a 30-minute advantage?
As you probably know, the Boston Marathon is one of the few marathons that sets a minimum qualifying standard for most of the runners in the race. The only exceptions are people running for charity or who have affiliations with the sponsors of the race. These standards vary both by gender and age group, the idea being not just that men shouldn’t directly compete with women, but also that 50-year-old men shouldn’t be competing with 28-year-olds for starting spots.
But I’m not sure that the world-record argument makes sense when we’re talking about Boston qualifying standards. For the 2012 race, the fastest qualifying time, 3 hours and 10 minutes, is more than 50 percent slower than the world record. Clearly the typical qualifier doesn’t have much in common with a world-class athlete.
So I decided to do a different calculation. I took a sample of 8 popular marathons run in the past year, and then looked at what portion of men and women qualified for Boston in selected age groups. If women really have an unfair advantage, then a larger percentage of the women competing would qualify, right?
Below is the basic data:
I looked at three age groups: 20-24 (or 18-24 in some races), 35-39, and 50-54, and as you can see, for each race, there were more male qualifiers than female qualifiers. But, of course, there were also more male participants. What portion of males qualified compared to the portion of females qualifying? As it turns out, the percentage was identical for males and females: a 9.1 percent qualification rate.
Let’s take a closer look at the data:
While men outqualified women in the 20-24 and 50-54 age groups, women outqualified men in the 35-39 group. Overall, the difference between sexes is a wash. You might actually make a better case that the rules favor older runners, since there’s a distinct trend toward higher qualification rates for older runners.
But both of these observations are dwarfed by another one: The particular marathon a runner chooses to qualify in. Take a look at this graph of qualifying rates, combining the results for both sexes:
The qualifying rates for these marathons range from just 4.1 percent for Disney, up to 31.5 percent for Steamtown. It’s possible that the numbers are inflated by “easy” races like Steamtown and California International attracting better-qualified runners, but it’s clear that the difference between the sexes, and even between age groups, may not be the most important factor in determining who does and does not qualify for Boston.