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, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Lunad — December 13, 2011
please correct: first marathon not in 1986
J — December 13, 2011
That would be the 1896 Olympics, in which Spyridon Louis (January 12, 1873 – March 26, 1940) ran a 3-hour marathon.
Johan — December 13, 2011
Interesting read, but I think the difference between mens and womens world record is a bit over over 10 min (about 12 min).
Umlud — December 13, 2011
The numbers you cite are a little out of date (at least if they are referencing the Boston marathon; and I'm using the Boston marathon, since it's the longest-running annual marathon and minimizing the course differences that may cause some races to run "faster"). The current men's record (for the Boston marathon) is 123 minutes, while the current women's record (for the Boston marathon) is 140 minutes. (Values from Wikipedia.) Still, the time difference in the records is much smaller than the 67-minute difference between the men's and women's record times in 1966.
As much as it's interesting to see the record times, I think that it's more informative to look at the fastest finishing times for each year's Boston marathon. In this way, you can see how the overall trend of finishing times looks in comparison to the records. The closer non-record times are, it's less likely that a record would be made and it's similarly less likely that a large drop in a record will be made.
Interestingly inter-annual variance (using the previous five years' data for a given marathon) of finishing times for women's finishing times has been consistently below 10 since 1990, which indicates that - barring some major breakthrough in physiology (and therefore another proof for evolution), running technology, training protocol, or drug use - decrements in the average time is likely not going to follow the trend of 1966-1980. Indeed, if you were to draw the best fit line of the women's finishing times from 1990-2011, you'll get a near zero-slope line.
Therefore, to answer the hypothetical of what the women's time would likely have been, given 64 more years of competition, I would hazard that it would almost certainly be less than 140 minutes, but probably not less than 130 minutes. However, it doesn't necessarily have to be so:
The average male finishing time had been at an effective standstill since 1981 until 2009, with the slope of the men's line of finishing times being near-horizontal. However, both 2010 and 2011 saw new course records, each roughly 2.8 minutes faster than the previous year, showing that breakthroughs continue to remain possible (and unpredictable), and that speculating on the physiological limits of human capability (with regard to distance running) will continue to remain interesting.
anon — December 13, 2011
It may also be worth noting that some of those women's records were set by people widely believed to be biologically men. There are a number of controversial cases of communist countries put forward Olympic athletes that were likely born men, before the (problematic) practice of gender testing was introduced. Those records still stand.
Anonymous — December 13, 2011
Am I correct in assuming that most people would attribute any remaining male-female difference to differences in average height, and, therefore, average stride length?
Elena — December 13, 2011
With a fixed course length, if you plotted these data points by average speed/year instead of time/year, the curves would end up approaching asymptote(s). Interesting.
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