Track & Battlefield
Everybody knows that the "gender gap" between men and women runners in the Olympics is narrowing. Everybody is wrong.
Published in National Review, 12/31/97
Steve Sailer is a businessman and writer. Dr. Stephen Seiler is an American sports physiologist at Norway's Agder College. Yes, they really are different people, and, No, they haven't yet decided which one is the evil twin. Background statistics are posted at http://members.aol.com/steveslr. This is the final draft rather than the slightly shorter and slightly different published in National Review. So blame us for anything you don't like, not the magazine.
Everybody knows that the "gender gap" in physical performance between male and female athletes is rapidly narrowing. Moreover, in an opinion poll just before the 1996 Olympics, 66% claimed "the day is coming when top female athletes will beat top males at the highest competitive levels." The most publicized scientific study supporting this belief appeared in Nature in 1992: "Will Women Soon Outrun Men?" Physiologists Susan Ward and Brian Whipp pointed out that since the Twenties women's world records in running had been falling faster than men's. Assuming these trends continued, men's and women's marathon records would equalize by 1998, and during the early 21st Century for the shorter races.
This is not sports trivia. Whether the gender gap in athletic performance stems from biological differences between men and women, or is simply a social construct imposed by the Male Power Structure, is highly relevant both to fundamental debates about the malleability of human nature, as well as to current political controversies such as the role of women in the military.
When everybody is so sure of something, it's time to update the numbers. So, I began an in-depth study with my research partner, Dr. Stephen Seiler, an American sports physiologist teaching at Agder College in Norway. (Yes, we do have almost identical names, but don't blame him for all the opinions in this article: of the two of us, I am the evil twin).
The conclusion: Although the 1998 outdoor running season isn't even here yet, we can already discard Ward and Whipp's forecast: women will not catch up to men in the marathon this year. The gender gap between the best marathon times remains the equivalent of the woman record holder losing by over 2.6 miles. In fact, we can now be certain that in fair competition the fastest women will never equal the fastest men at any standard length race. Why? Contrary to all expectations, the overall gender gap has been widening throughout the Nineties. While men's times have continued to get faster, world class women are now running noticeably slower than in the Eighties. How come? It's a fascinating tale of sex discrimination, ethnic superiority, hormones, and the fall of the Berlin Wall that reconfirms the unpopular fact that biological differences between the sexes and the races will continue to play a large, perhaps even a growing, role in human affairs.
First, though, why is running the best sport for carefully measuring changes in the gender gap? Obviously, there are different size gender gaps in different sports (and even within a sport: in basketball, for example, the gap in slam dunking is enormously greater than in free throw shooting). Indeed, women do sometimes "beat top males at the highest competitive levels" in equestrian, yachting, drag racing and a few other riding sports, as well as in some stationary events like shooting. One self-propelled sport where women arguably outperform men is ocean swimming, in which they've achieved amazing firsts like paddling from Alaska to Siberia. (This is a rare sport where a higher body fat percentage is a boon.) Two Olympic sports are open only to females: synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics. In America, however, both the male and the feminist sports establishments roundly ridicule these events (undeservedly in the case of rhythmic gymnastics, an enchanting exercise). Similarly, other demanding but female-dominated physical activities like dancing, aerobics, and cheerleading are seldom considered sports at all by Americans.
Thus, the current climate of opinion demands that we analyze a "major" (i.e., traditionally male) sport. In these games, however, women's sports advocates insist on "separate but equal" competition. Separateness, however, badly hinders the equality of measurements. Since they play in what might as well be alternative universes, it's difficult to confidently quantify, for example, precisely how much better the NBA's Michael Jordan is than the WNBA's Sheryl Swoopes.
Fortunately for our analytical purposes, men and women currently compete under identical conditions in ten Olympic running events, making their times directly comparable. In general, track is ideal for statistical study because it's such a simple sport: all that matters are the times. Another advantage to focusing on running is that it's probably the most universal sport. Track medalists in the 1996 Olympics included an Australian aborigine as well as runners from Burundi, Trinidad & Tobago, South Korea, Mozambique, Norway, and Namibia. Running is so fundamental to life and so cheap that most children on Earth compete at it enough to reveal whether they possess any talent for it.
So, Ward & Whipp were certainly correct to concentrate upon running. As they noted, the gender gap did narrow sharply up through the Eighties. Let's focus upon those ten directly comparable races. Way back in 1970, women's world record times averaged 21.3% higher (worse) than men's. But during the Seventies women broke or equaled world records 79 times, compared to only 18 times by men, lowering the average gender gap in world records to 13.3%. In the Eighties, women set 47 records compared to only 23 by men, and the gender gap shrank to just 10.2%. Further narrowing seemed inevitable in the Nineties.
Yet, male runners are now pulling away from female runners. Women's performances have collapsed, with only five record-setting efforts so far in this decade, compared to 30 by men. (The growth of the gender gap has even been accelerating. Men broke or tied records seven times in 1997, the most in any year since 1968.) The average gender gap for WR's has increased from 10.2% to 11.0%. And since four of the five women's "records" set in the Nineties occurred at extremely questionable Chinese meets (as we shall see later), it's probably more accurate to say that for relatively legitimate records in the Nineties, men are ahead of women 30 to 1, and the average world record gender gap has grown from 10.2% to 11.5%.
Despite all the hype about 1996 being the "Women's Olympics," in the Atlanta Games' central events -- the footraces -- female medalists performed worse relative to male medalists than in any Olympics since 1972. In the 1988 Games the gender gap for medalists was 10.9%, but it grew to 12.2% in 1996. Even stranger is the trend in absolute times. Track fans expect slow but steady progress; thus, nobody is surprised that male medalists became 0.5% faster from the 1988 to the 1996 Olympics. Remarkably, though, women medalists became 0.6% slower over the same period.
Why is the gender gap growing?
1. In the Longer Races. From 800m to the marathon, but especially in the 5,000m and 10,000m races, the main reason women are falling further behind men is discrimination, society forcing women to stay home and have six babies. Of course, I'm not talking about the industrialized world, but about a few polygamous, high-birth rate African nations. All 17 male distance record-settings in the Nineties belong to Kenyans (9), Ethiopians (5), Algerians (2), or Moroccans (1). A culture can encourage all women to pursue glory in athletics or to have a half-dozen kids, but not both. Thus, Kenya's high birth rate (not long ago it was more than five times West Germany's) has contributed to an ever-swelling torrent of brilliant male runners, but has kept any Kenyan woman from winning Olympic gold.
These facts, though, raise a disturbing question: Why is women's distance running so debilitated by sexism in these obscure African countries? Because, as bankrobber Willie Sutton might say, that's where the talent is. You can't understand women's running without comparing it to men's running, and that has become incomprehensible unless you grasp how, as equality of opportunity has improved in men's track, ethnic inequality of result has skyrocketed. The African tidal wave culminated on August 13, 1997 when Wilson Kipketer, a Kenyan running for Denmark, broke the great Sebastian Coe's 800m mark, erasing the last major record held by any man not of African descent. African superiority is now so manifest that even Burundi, a small East African hell-hole, drubbed the U.S. in the men's distance races at our own Atlanta Games.
Yet, there are striking systematic differences between even African ethnic groups. This can best be seen by graphing each population's bell curve for running. The Olympic events from 100 meters to the marathon run along the horizontal axis, and the percentage of the 100 best times in history go along the vertical axis. For Kenyan men, for example, a lovely bell curve appears showing which distances they are best suited for. These East Africans are outclassed in the 100m and 200m, but become competitive in the 400m, then are outstanding from 800m to 10,000m, before tailing off slightly in the marathon (42,000m). Not surprisingly, the Kenyan's peak is in the middle of their range -- the 3,000m steeplechase -- where Kenyans own the 53 fastest times ever.
In contrast, for the black men of the West African Diaspora (e.g., U.S., Nigeria, Cuba, Brazil, Canada, Britain, and France), only the right half of their bell curve is visible. They absolutely monopolize the 100m. Men of West African descent have broken the 10 second barrier 134 times; nobody else has ever done it. They remain almost as overwhelming in the 200m and 400m, then drop off to being merely quite competitive in the 800m. They are last sighted in the 1500m, and then are absolutely not a factor in the long distance events.
While there are the usual nature vs. nurture arguments over why African runners win so much, there is no possibility that culture alone can account for how much West African and East African runners differ in power vs. endurance. Track is ultracompetitive: Coaches test all their runners at different distances until they find their best lengths. Even in the unlikely event that Kenya's coaches were too self-defeating to exploit their 100m talent, and Jamaica's leadership was ignoring their 10,000m prodigies, American and European coaches and agents would swoop in and poach them. No, what's infinitely more plausible is that both West Africans and East Africans are performing relatively close to their highly distinct biological limits.
None of this conforms to American obsessions about race. First, we dread empirical studies of human biodiversity, worrying that they will uncover the intolerable reality of racial supremacy. Is this fear realistic? Consider merely running: are West Africans generally better runners than whites? In sprints, absolutely. In distance races, absolutely not. Overall racial supremacy is nonsense; specific ethnic superiorities are a manifold reality.
Second, our crude racial categories blur over many fascinating genetic differences between, for example, groups as similar in color as West and East Africans. And even within the highlands of East Africa there are different track bell curves: Ethiopians, while almost as strong as Kenyans at 5,000m and longer, are not a factor below 3,000m. And the African dominance is not just a black thing. Moroccans and Algerians tend to be more white than black, yet they possess a bell curve similar to, if slightly less impressive than, Kenyans. Further research will uncover many more fascinating patterns: for example, Europeans appear to be consistently mediocre, achieving world class performances primarily at distances like 800m and the marathon that fall outside of the prime ranges for West Africans and Kenyans.
These ethnic patterns among male runners are crucial to understanding the causes of the growth in the gender gap, because it appears that women runners possess the same natural strengths and weaknesses as their menfolk. For example, the bell curves for men and women runners of West African descent are both equally sprint-focused. Therefore, if a nation's women perform very differently than its men, something is peculiar. With high-birthrate African countries like Kenya and Morocco, it's clear the social systems restrain marriage-aged women from competing. This offers hope that the distance gender gap will someday stop widening. Indeed, since the Kenyan birthrate began dropping a few years back, we have begun to see a few outstanding Kenyan women.
2. In the Shorter Races. The gender gap is widening not just because men (especially African distance runners) are running faster today, but also because women (especially East European sprinters) are now running slower.
From 1970-1989, white women from communist countries accounted for 71 of the 84 records set at 100m-1500m. In contrast, white men from communist countries accounted for exactly zero of the 23 male records. Those memorable East German frauleins alone set records 49 times in just the sprints and relays (100m-400m). This was especially bizarre because men of West African descent have utterly dominated white men in sprinting. Another oddity of that era is that communist women set only seven (and East Germans none) of the 48 female records in the 5k, 10k, and the marathon.
The crash of women's running was brought about by two seemingly irrelevant events in the late Eighties: Ben Johnson got caught, and the Berlin Wall fell. At the 1988 Olympics, in the most anticipated 100m race of all time, Johnson, the surly Jamaican-Canadian sprinter who could benchpress 396 pounds, demolished Carl Lewis with a jaw-dropping world record of 9.79 seconds. Two days later Johnson was stripped of his medal and record because his urine contained steroids -- muscle-building artificial male hormones. Embarrassed that it had let a man called "Benoid" by other runners (because his massively muscled body was so flooded with steroids that his eyeballs had turned yellow) become the biggest star in the sport, track officialdom finally got fairly serious about testing for steroids in 1989.
Then the Berlin Wall fell, and we learned exactly how East German coaches enabled white women to outsprint black women: by chemically masculinizing them. It turns out that masculinity -- in its lowest common denominator definition of muscularity and aggressiveness -- is not a social construct at all: East German biochemists simply mass-produced masculinity. Obviously, the communists weren't the only dopers, but they were the best organized. Newsweek reported, "Under East Germany's notorious State Plan 14.25, more than 1,000 scientists, trainers and physicians spent much of the 1980's developing better ways to drug the nation's athletes." East German coaches are now finally going on trial for forcing enormous doses of steroids on uninformed teenagers. The Soviet Union, although less brilliant in the laboratory, also engaged in cheating on an impressively industrial scale.
Even today, this pattern of women's records coming mostly from communist countries continues: four of this decade's five female marks were set by teenagers at the Chinese National Games, where tough drug testing is politically impossible. (The 1997 Games in Shanghai were such a bacchanal of doping that all 24 women's weightlifting records were broken, but weightlifting's governing officials had the guts to refuse to ratify any of these absurd marks.) In contrast to the astounding accomplishments by China's fuel-injected women, Chinese men's performances remain mediocre. [Note: a few weeks after this was published, the Chinese Women's Swim team was disgraced at the World Championships in Australia, when a Chinese woman swimmer was caught trying to smuggle Human Growth Hormone into the country, and numerous teammates were caught by steroid testing.]
Exemplifying the differences in drug testing between the Eighties and Nineties are the contrasting fates of two Eastern European women: Jarmila Kraticholivova and Katrin Krabbe. The extremely muscular Miss Kraticholivova, described by Track & Field News as a "Mack truck," won the 400m and the 800m at the 1983 World Championships, and her 800m record still stands. Runner Rosalyn Bryant commented, "I'm still not envious of the 'Wonder Woman' of Czechoslovakia. I could have chosen the same way, but I didn't want to change my body, given to me by God, into a new shape. ... Five years ago she was a normal woman. Now she is all muscles and runs World Records." Her rival Gaby Bussmann called her, flatly, "a man." Miss K. replied, "One day, if [Ms. Bussman] produces performances like mine, she will have to have sacrificed some of her good looks. In athletics, one has to decide how much to sacrifice. The women of the West don't work as hard as we do." Miss K. was never caught by the drug tests of her day.
In contrast, Katrin Krabbe, a product of the old East German training system, won the 100m and 200m at the 1991 World Championships to rave reviews. Track & Field News called her "beautiful" and "sleek," and pointedly contrasted her to the "masculine" Miss Kraticholivova. Even before her victories, young Ms. Krabbe had signed a million dollars in modeling and product endorsement contracts. Although she couldn't have been very heavily doped by Eighties' standards, in 1992 she was disqualified because of tampering with her urine sample. Thus, East German women won eight medals at the 1988 Olympics, but during the 1992 and 1996 Games combined, reunited Germany's women could garner only a single bronze.
The communists were almost completely stumped at producing male champions because the benefits of a given amount of steroids are much greater for women than men. Since men average 10 times more natural testosterone than women, they need dangerously large, Ben Johnson-sized doses to make huge improvements, while women can bulk-up significantly on smaller, less-easily detected amounts. The primitive testing at the 1988 Olympics did succeed in catching Benoid; yet the female star of those Games, America's Florence Griffith-Joyner, passed every urinalysis she ever faced. The naturally lissome Flo-Jo may have been the world's fastest clean 200 meter woman from 1984-1987, but she kept finishing second in big races to suspiciously brawny women. She then asked Ben Johnson for training advice, and emerged from a winter in the weight room looking like a Saturday morning cartoon superheroine. She made a magnificent joke out of women's track in 1988, setting records in the 100m and 200m that few had expected to see before the middle of the 21st Century. Then, she retired before random drug testing began in 1989, having passed every drug test she ever took.
Why didn't the East German labs synthesize successful women distance runners? Although artificial male hormones are fairly useful to distance runners (in part because they increase the will to win), sprinters get the biggest bang for their steroid buck. The shorter the race, the more it demands anaerobic power (which steroids boost), while the longer the race, the more it tests aerobic and heat dispersal capacities.
Doping has not disappeared from track, but runners have responded to better testing by using fewer steroids, and by trying less potent but harder to detect drugs like Human Growth Hormone. These new drugs affect both sexes much more equally than Old King Steroid. The decline in steroid use has allowed the natural order to reassert itself: before steroids overwhelmed women's track in the Seventies, black women like Wilma Rudolph and Wyomia Tyus dominated sprinting. Today, lead by young Marian Jones, who is potentially the Carl Lewis of women's track, black women rule once more. However, white women are still much more heavily represented among the top sprinters than are white men. This could mean that the "ethnic gap" in natural talent between West Africans and Europeans is smaller among women than men. Or, more likely, doping continues to enhance women's times more than men's. Thus, if testing can continue to improve faster than doping, the gender gap would tend to grow even wider.*
In conclusion, studying sports' gender gaps offers new perspectives on a host of contemporary issues seemingly far removed from athletics, such as women in the military. Ironically, feminists in sports have successfully campaigned for the funding of thousands of sexually segregated, female-only teams, while feminists in the media and Congress have compelled the Armed Forces (outside of the defiant Marines) to sexually integrate basic training and many operating units, even including some combat teams.
Who's right? Female college coaches have some powerful reasons for believing that coed competition would badly damage their mission of turning girls into strong, take-charge women. For example, they fear that female athletes would inevitably be sexually harassed. Even more distracting to their mission than the unwanted sexual advances from male teammates, however, would be the wanted ones. This opinion is based on more than just lesbian jealousy: research on single sex vs. coed schools shows that teenage girls are more likely to develop into leaders in all-female groups, whereas in coed settings young females tend to compete with each other in coyly deferring to good-looking guys. Any hard-headed female basketball coach could tell you that merging her team with the school's men's team would simply turn two dedicated squads now focused on beating their respective opponents into one all-consuming soap opera of lust, betrayal, jealousy, and revenge. (Does this remind you of the current state of any superpower's military?) Yet, feminists utterly forget to apply their own hard-earned wisdom to the armed forces: on the whole, deploying young women in cramped quarters alongside young fighting men does not make the women into better warriors, it make them into moms. For example, the Washington Times reports that for every year a coed warship is at sea, the Navy has to airlift out 16% of the female sailors as their pregnancies become advanced.
Reorganizing the military along the lines of the sexually segregated teams characteristic of contemporary college sports will do much both to more fully use the potential of women in uniform and to quell the endless sexual brouhahas currently bedeviling our coed military. Yet, the crucial issue remains: Should women fight? The main justification feminists give for a coed-izing the military is that lack of combat experience unfairly hampers female officers' chances for promotion.
We can again turn for guidance to female coaches. The main reason they favor sexual apartheid on the playing fields is that in open competition males would slaughter females. It seems reasonable to conclude the same would happen on the battlefields. This may sound alarmist. After all, running's gender gap is a rather marginal-sounding 1/8th; surely, many women are faster than the average man, and, by the same logic, many would make better soldiers.
First, though, as economists have long pointed out, competition occurs at the margins: runners don't race against the average Joe, but against other runners. And soldiers fight other soldiers. Second, while the moderate width of track's gender gap is representative of many simple sports that test primarily a single physical skill (the main exceptions are tests of upper body strength like shotputting, where the top men are as much as twice as strong as the top women), in free-flowing multidimensional sports like basketball where many skills must be combined, overall gender gaps tend to be so imposing that after puberty females almost never compete with males. Consider what traits help just in enabling you to dunk a basketball: height, vertical leaping ability, footspeed (to generate horizontal momentum that can be diverted into vertical liftoff), and hand size and hand strength (to dunk one-handed). Not one of these five individual gender gaps is enormous, but they combine to create a huge difference in results: almost everybody in the NBA can dunk compared to almost nobody in the WNBA. Basketball, however, is far more than slam and jam. Throw in the need for massiveness and upper body strength in rebounding and defense, wrist strength in jumpshooting, etc., and multiply all these male advantages together, and the resulting gender gap in basketball ability is so vast that despite the WNBA's state of the art marketing, it's actual product resembles an all white high school boys' game from a few decades ago.
Although the unique ease of our Gulf War victory encouraged the fantasy that technology has made fighting almost effortless, the chaos of combat will continue to demand a wide diversity of both physical aptitudes (like being able to hump a load of depleted-uranium ammunition) and mental attitudes (like the urge to kill) that interact to create a huge gender gap in fighting ability.
While in theory it might be nice if we could accommodate ambitious female officers' need for combat experience by negotiating during wars with our enemies to set up separate all-female battles between our Amazon units and their Amazon units, this is where the analogy with sports finally breaks down: opponents in war don't have to play by the rules ... causing our women to be defeated, captured, raped, and killed. Still, if (as, in effect, so many feminists insist) female officers' right to equal promotion opportunities requires that they be furnished with female cannon fodder, there is one proven formula for narrowing the gender gap to give our enlisted women more of a fighting chance. Feminist logic implies that just as our military once imported ex-Nazi German rocket scientists, it should now import ex-communist German steroid pushers.
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