For Kim Goodwin, the proof is in the pool.
Goodwin, a swimming coach at Norwood High School, has witnessed ninth-grade boys with little experience muscle through a 100-yard freestyle competition to beat female teammates who have been training for years.
“Some of the boys who were beating the girls had terrible technique, but they had explosive speed,” said Goodwin, herself an accomplished swimmer with national titles. “Their feet are bigger and their hands are bigger and that is huge in swimming.”
The gender gap that Goodwin observed has fascinated scientists for decades.
Research at Indiana University is yielding some of the freshest evidence on how age — and hormones — factor into sports performance. The scientists found no difference in swimming performance in children through age 7. And they pinpointed little differences among 11- and 12-year-olds.
But that started to charge with the arrival of adolescence. The scientists — who analyzed data from nearly 2 million swims by youngsters age 6 to 19 who competed from 2005 to 2010 — found that the effects of puberty on performance began showing around age 13, as the boys started experiencing accelerated height, weight, and strength.
After puberty, males have historically outrun, outjumped, outvaulted, outswum, and generally notched superior athletic performances. But researchers have long hypothesized that more access for women to training opportunities since the 1970s would squeeze that gender gap until the chasm eventually disappeared.
Two events at the just-concluded Summer Olympics highlighted that tantalizing possibility.
One was the height reached by US gymnast McKayla Maroney in the women’s vault event, higher even than gold medal gymnast Kohei Uchimura of Japan in the men’s vault.
The other was the jaw-dropping speed of Ye Shiwen, the 16-year-old Chinese swimmer who not only won gold in the women’s 400 meter individual medley in record time, but also swam the final 50 meters faster than Ryan Lochte, the US swimmer who won gold in the men’s 400-meter event that same night.
Some swimming officials have said the teen’s time was so unbelievable they suspected she might be taking performance enhancing drugs, which are prohibited in the Olympics. Ye denied the accusations, and drug tests appeared to back her up, coming back negative.
Dr. David Geier, director of sports medicine at Medical University of South Carolina, said he would not be surprised to see a few rare cases of elite female athletes besting their male counterparts. Such instances, he said, would most likely happen in swimming and gymnastics, sports that require flexibility, a trait more common in females.
“Swimming is about skill and mechanics, and there is an element of flexibility that requires a tremendous amount of shoulder rotation,” Geier said. “I am reluctant to say no woman could catch a man, but I would think it would have to be the right sport and the right circumstances.”
British researchers in 2004 published a paper in the journal Nature that analyzed race times in the Olympic 100-meter sprint from 1900 through 2004 and concluded that if the trend continued, the female winner in the year 2156 could notch a faster finish than the top male.
But a 2010 study by French researchers published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine compared a century’s worth of best performances by the top 10 male and female Olympic athletes across 82 sports and found that after a significant shrinking of the gap, women’s performance, on average, has not gained ground on men’s since 1983.
They concluded that more athletic opportunities for women, along with rising use of performance enhancing drugs during the 1970s and early ’80s, rapidly shrank the gap. Then regulators improved detection of prohibited drugs, leading to less drug doping, the researchers said. Female athletes’ swift gains stalled to where they remain today, about 10 percent behind male performances, on average.
“These results,” the scientists concluded, “suggest that women will not run, jump, swim, or ride as fast as men.”
Much of the doping in decades past involved anabolic steroids, a drug that mimics the effects of testosterone in the body. Because women naturally have much lower levels, female athletes in particular would benefit from steroid use.
Bottom line, say exercise specialists, is that Mother Nature is the ultimate doper, imbuing males with testosterone, a hormone that makes them more powerful and allows them to inevitably trump females’ athletic performances.Continued...