L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

25 August 2009 Blog Home : August 2009 : Permalink

Men vs Women in Running Races

One thing that fascinates me now that I'm doing quite a lot of running is the difference between male and female performance. The difference is reasonably consistent across all distances as this table of world recods by distance shows  (taken from the IAAF).
Discipline Perf Athlete Perf Athlete Difference% (F/M-1)
100 Metres 9.58 Usain Bolt 10.49 Florence Griffith-Joyner 9.50%
200 Metres 19.19 Usain Bolt 21.34 Florence Griffith-Joyner 11.20%
400 Metres 43.18 Michael Johnson 47.6 Marita Koch 10.24%
800 Metres 01:41.11 Wilson Kipketer 01:53.28 Jarmila Kratochvílová 12.04%
1000 Metres 02:11.96 Noah Ngeny 02:28.98 Svetlana Masterkova 12.90%
1500 Metres 03:26.00 Hicham El Guerrouj 03:50.46 Yunxia Qu 11.87%
One Mile 03:43.13 Hicham El Guerrouj 04:12.56 Svetlana Masterkova 13.19%
2000 Metres 04:44.79 Hicham El Guerrouj 05:25.36 Sonia O'Sullivan 14.25%
3000 Metres 07:20.67 Daniel Komen 08:06.11 Junxia Wang 10.31%
5000 Metres 12:37.35 Kenenisa Bekele 14:11.15 Tirunesh Dibaba 12.39%
10,000 Metres 26:17.53 Kenenisa Bekele 29:31.78 Junxia Wang 12.31%
10 Kilometres 27:01:00 Micah Kipkemboi Kogo 30:21:00 Paula Radcliffe 12.34%
15 Kilometres 41:29:00 Felix Limo 46:55:00 Kayoko Fukushi 13.10%
20,000 Metres 56:26.00 Haile Gebrselassie 01:05:26.60 Tegla Loroupe 15.97%
20 Kilometres 00:55:48 Haile Gebrselassie 01:02:57.00 Lornah Kiplagat 12.81%
One Hour* 21.29 Haile Gebrselassie 18.52 Dire Tune 14.95%
Half Marathon 00:58:33 Samuel Kamau Wanjiru 01:06:25
Lornah Kiplagat 13.44%
25 Kilometres 01:12:45 Paul Malakwen Kosgei 01:22:13
Mizuki Noguchi 13.01%
30 Kilometres 01:28:00
Takayuki Matsumiya 01:38:49
Mizuki Noguchi 12.29%
Marathon 02:03:59
Haile Gebrselassie 02:15:25
Paula Radcliffe 9.22%
100 Kilometres 06:13:33
Takahiro Sunada 06:33:11
Tomoe Abe 5.26%
*One hour is distance in km travelling in one hour hence the difference ratio is reversed

If you graph this you see that for the most part the female records are 12-14% slower (with some outliers) but that the trend distinctly drops at the ends. Particulalrly at the long end where the 100km time is far more equal. Also of interest is that while female record holders are from a variety of ethnic backgrounds (though no Indians) the male ones all come from an African background except for Takahiro Sunada in the 100km cetegory and Takatuki Matsumia in the 30km one. [Actually there are 2 other Japanese male record holders in the 25,000 meters and the 30,000 meters - I omitted these times in the comparison since it seems clear these are distances are weird in that these track records are significantly slower than the road equivalents for both sexes.]
Femle relatve slowness (%age)
Just to put these numbers in persepctive. I personally can run from 5km to marathon at times that are approximately 50% longer - (19 minutes 5-km, 39 mins 10km, 1h26 for half marathon and 3h15 for the full) - than the male world record holders. I also generally finish in the top 10-20% of finishers. Slower runners often take more than 50% longer to finish than I do so.

I suspect that outside of professional athletics the m-f difference is on average larger. For example when I look at the times for the first female finisher compared to the winner (always male) in the smaller races I take part in the difference seems to be larger than 10-15%. Indeed I quite often beat - or come in close behind - the leading woman in these smaller races).

One reason why I'm going on about this is that people generally accept that in sports female competitors/teams at a certain level will be beaten by male ones at the same level. Indeed think of all the controversy about Caster Semenya just now. In fact I'm not in fact aware of any major sport which relies on human muscles where women compete on equal terms ot men. On the other hand there is huge controversy over potential intellectual differences. William Briggs has a series of posts discussing "Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences" by Steven Goldberg where the statistics about that possible difference (mean IQs same, males show higher varience hence more males as outliers at the top and bottom of the range) and how people refuse to accept evidence that points to the difference or the consequences of such a difference.

The other reason I'm thinking about this is because of fictional books where the heroine is some kind of physical superwoman. Unless she's genetically engineered like Friday or Honor Harrington this is going to be hard to swallow unless there are clear compensatory reasons such as coming from a different ethnic group where both sexes are generally bigger and stronger (think N Europe vs SE Asia for example).