Sunday, June 29, 2008

Modern Women's World Records
vs. Historical Men's World Records — Part II

Following up on last week's post comparing current women's world records in track & field with historical men's world records, here's a graph to illustrate what I see as a trend (To get a larger version, click on the image):

The y axis is the year that the historical men's record eclipsed the current women's record. The x axis is a logarithmic scale showing the distance of the various events in meters. I'm no statistician, but I see a clear trend here.

Simply, the longer the event, the more impressive the women's best is relative to men's historical performances. Whereas the world's fastest men have been running faster than Florence Griffith Joyner's (somewhat disputed) 10.49s in the 100m since Charlie Paddock ran 10.4s in 1921, it took until 1958 for the world's fastest male marathon runner to go any faster than Paula Radcliffe's current world best of 2:15:25.

Why might this be the case? I can think of a few reasons.

First, the longer distance events – and the training required to excel at them – appear to have not been taken very seriously by athletes at the dawn of the last century. Wikipedia notes that the winner of the first modern Olympic marathon in 1896 thought it wise to stop at an inn for a glass of wine mid-race.

Second, it may be that whatever athletic advantage men have due to human sexual dimorphism, this advantage is reduced when it comes to the traits that make for successful long distance runners. Men may have an insurmountable advantage over women in the creation of fast twitch muscle fibers that make for successful sprinters, but may have a much smaller (or nonexistent) advantage in the development of slow twitch muscle fibers and cardiovascular fitness that make for excellent marathoners.

Modern Women's World Records vs. Historical Men's World Records

See Also:
Michael Phelps v. Mark Spitz (comparing Spitz's performance against today's female records)

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