Friday, February 28, 2014

Sex differences, Olympic style

Note: "He" and "She" here mean, I think, < 50 people
worldwide, and definitely not anyone I know...
image: B. Berkowitz & A.Cuadra,
Washington Post 25.02.14
We humans are more similar to each other than a single troop of chimpanzees, our closest relative, so what is behind the consistent gap in athletic performance between men and women?

It's clear to any serious athlete. I played tennis university in the US, and though not a great player, I was a good enough to win some matches there and at small professional tournaments afterwards.

However, as a young woman aware of women's increasing independence and role outside the home, it both frustrated and amazed me how much faster my male practice partners were than female ones. My guy opponents always seemed to be able to run down and even return that same great shot that was a "winner" against a woman. I had to work harder and be more patient to win each point. Even though I might have been a better player technically, the guys were stronger and faster, and this was very irritating.


This disparity I felt is real, and beyond things like motivation and competitive nature, the differences in our internal chemistry and structure suggest that equality in pure physical performance is a long way away. (I know, ladies, I don't like it either, but really it's true).

In most sports, the top male athletes outperform top female athletes by about 10 percent, and this is consistent among most cycling, swimming, and running and jumping events (the ones that are easy to measure).

After a rapid catch-up when women started competing in various sports, this difference between men and women in world-class performance, in many different sports, stabilized in the 1980s.  Each sex continues to improve proportionally, so scientists suggest that top women will never perform -- run, jump, swim, or cycle -- as well as top men.

image: B. Berkowitz & A.Cuadra,
Washington Post 25.02.14
Even among elite athletes, men have the advantage for most sports. Men have more of certain hormones, such as testosterone, that give them several advantages, including:
  • more lean muscle and less fat per pound or kilo than women
  • larger skeletal muscles to do the exercise
  • a larger proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which give them better speed and strength.
  • larger hearts, even given their larger body size, that pump more blood and thus send more oxygen to muscles, which gives them greater aerobic capacity.
Men's blood itself helps them perform better: they have more red blood cells, with associated lower levels of oxygen-carrying hemoglobin, than women do.

Women's hips are shallower, giving us greater flexibility (see any figure skater from the recent Winter Olympics, though I was clearly snoozing during that lesson!).

However, our larger hip-to-knee angle and generally looser tissues around our joints makes it crucial for us to strength train to avoid injury to our knees and shoulders. Yes, this means more squats and lunges! (I did my sets this morning).

These two images come from a larger, informative infographic, designed with exercise scientists - it's quite interesting and a quick read.

Of course, it's true that all of these advantages are only gained when the owner works at their sport. While it is also true that a more fit and better trained person of either sex will likely outperform an unfit person of the opposite sex, these clear biological advantages that men have may explain why men hate losing to women (right?).

Even among women, or among men, "fit" athletes come in all shapes and sizes. Vive la diference in this great series of photos by Howard Schatz and Beverly Ornstein of the bodies of male and female 2012 Summer Olympic athletes in a number of sports! Great legs!


talent comes in various shapes and sizes
images: Howard Schatz and Beverly Ornstein

Where do you fit along this spectrum? The BBC lets you enter your height and weight to place yourself within the whole range of athletes!

Many (most?) of these differences can be attributed to reproductive needs (e.g. pelvic flexibility to accommodate a growing baby) but also to way back when, when men needed strength and speed to catch dinner.

Despite the physical and genetic differences between men and women, some studies show that in many personality traits (including assertiveness, empathy, and need for close relationships), we are more similar than we realize, and we still need to Keep Talking to each other to remember it.

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