We often think of athletic ability as innate, something people are born with.  In fact, athletic performance is a combination of (at the very least) ability and opportunity.

Case in point: the marathon.

The first Olympic marathon occurred in 1896. A Grecian named Spyridon Louis won that race with a speed of two hours, 58 minutes, and 50 seconds. Women were excluded from formal competition until 1972. Once they were allowed to compete, their time dropped to an equivalent two and a half hours in just five years (source).

Today the men’s record is faster than the women’s record, but by less than 10 minutes… a much smaller difference than the one hour difference that we saw when women were first allowed to compete.  The rate at which they’ve been catching up with men has slowed though. Still, who knows how fast they’d be running if they hadn’t been excluded from competing for the 64 years between 1908 and 1972.  In any case, the quickening of both men’s and women’s times over the years shows just how contingent athletic performance can be.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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