Politics & Policy

Olympian Political Correctness

In all the Olympic hype, you won't hear about performance differences between Venus and Mars.

‘Can Jamaica’s Sprinters Fight Crime?” That’s the tongue-in-cheek headline of a recent Time magazine article celebrating the remarkable Olympics performances of track stars from that Caribbean nation. In the space of a few days, Usain Bolt smashed world records in the men’s 100 and 200 meters, while three Jamaican sprinters swept the medals in the women’s 100 meters.

Time’s question is amusing, but for me, the incredible accomplishments of the Jamaican track team call to mind another question that isn’t so funny to a lot of people — as I learned the hard way.

You see, I wrote a book in which I worked with professional athletes and Olympic medalists to settle a series of long-running sports debates. The questions I heard most often had to do with gender: How big is the gap between the top male and female athletes?

#ad#One of my initial findings was jarring: the women’s Olympic record in the 100 meters, set in 1988 by superstar Florence Griffith-Joyner, is virtually identical to the U.S. record for 14-year-old boys — also set in 1988, by the less heralded Curtis Johnson. The winning time of 2008 women’s gold medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser? Well over a tenth of a second slower than Johnson’s.

Nor is the 100 meters an aberration. In sport after sport, evidence shows that the top female professional athletes in the world are on par with the best American 14- and 15-year-old boys. Nearly every female Olympic record in speed, strength, and endurance events falls between the records set by the best American 14- and 15-year-old boys:

Speed/Endurance Record Times:
Distance Men’s Boys’ 14 Women’s Boys’ 15
100M 9.69 10.64 10.62 10.42
200M 19.30 21.49 21.34 20.97
400M 43.49 47.16 48.25 46.55
800M 1:42.58 1:55.9 1:53.43 1:51.03
1500M 3:32.07 4:04.1 3:53.96 3:51.5
5000M 13:05.59 15:46.8 14:40.79 14:32.8
10000M 27:05.10 32:48.0 30:17.49 31:43.2
Leaping Records (in meters):
Event Men’s Boys’ 14 Women’s Boys’ 15
High Jump 2.39 2.04 2.06 2.18
Long Jump 8.90 7.21 7.40 7.49
Pole Vault 5.95 4.72 4.91 5.33
Triple Jump 18.09 14.74 15.33 14.98

Direct competition between women and boys tends to confirm the gap: the women’s Olympic hockey team has lost to boys’ high school junior-varsity teams; the women’s Olympic soccer team has lost to club teams of 15-year-old boys, the Colorado Silver Bullets professional baseball team has lost to American Legion squads — the list goes on and on.


I was surprised that this information had never been disseminated widely, since the data I researched and the interviews I conducted didn’t take long to put together. Obviously, I’m not suggesting that any slob off the street could outrun Shelly-Ann Fraser; but if she can’t beat the time that a 14-year-old boy set 20 years ago, surely that fact should inform a number of gender-and-sports discussions: Has Title IX done enough to level the playing field for female athletes — or has it actually penalized male athletes? Should golfers like Michelle Wie receive sponsors’ exemptions to compete against men in PGA tournaments? Should Wimbledon award men and women tennis players the same prize money?

Experts in the field of gender differences in sports emphatically argue that men’s superior performance is due primarily to societal factors — if they’re even willing to concede men’s superior performance, that is.

#ad#For example, in October 2007, Eileen McDonagh of Northeastern University and Laura Pappano of Wellesley College published Playing with the Boys: Why Separate Is Not Equal in Sports. “The premise of this book, and our work,” McDonagh says, “is that sex segregation does not reflect sex differences between men and women, rather it constructs them.”

I laid out the results of my research for Pappano and asked why male athletes outpace female athletes starting at 14 and 15. She answered: “Women are told around that time that they are athletically inferior to men and that they should start acting like ladies. That’s why we see the boys making such stunning gains at that age and the girls begin to suffer.”

While no one can deny that societal factors play some role, the research makes it pretty clear that there was a simpler explanation for the gap: puberty. The Centers for Disease Control publishes growth charts for the U.S. population which reveal that boys hit their major growth spurt between the ages of 14 and 15 — precisely when the best boy athletes begin to outperform the top adult female athletes.

My interviews with female professionals and others in the world of women’s sports confirmed the importance of boys’ physical development at that age. Aaron Heifitz, the publicist for the U.S. national women’s soccer team, described how the women’s squad performs against the best youth club players in Southern California: “The boys’ 13s we can handle pretty consistently, but when the boys start really developing at 14, and especially 15, that’s when you start to see real separation and they pass even the best women’s players. They’re just bigger, stronger, and faster.”

Eileen McDonagh has suggested that gender differences don’t matter in skill-based games that don’t place a premium on size, strength, and speed — pointedly asking, during a speech at Wellesley, “Why on earth are pool and ping-pong sex segregated?” Here again, even a little research reveals that the best female performers can’t compete consistently with the best males. Ping-pong actually relies heavily on physical attributes, and the difference between male and female competitors is almost as severe as it is in tennis — where the 203rd-ranked male player soundly defeated both Serena and Venus Williams in separate exhibition sets (6-1 and 6-2, respectively). In pool, Jean Balukas — possibly the greatest female player of all time — finished in the middle of the pack in men’s events in the 1980s; and Jeanette “The Black Widow” Lee — formerly the world’s Number One female player — told me, “You would not believe the amount of men, in my world, who can wax me.”

Cathy Young, the author of Ceasefire: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality, suggests that that failure to discuss research findings openly and honestly reflects a larger feminist agenda of “bio-denial” to promote the idea that there are no natural differences between the genders. “There’s a whole establishment that’s invested in perpetuating the notion that there are not inborn differences between the genders athletically, and that any differences can only be attributable to sociological circumstances and societal oppression. They have a clear agenda to empower women through a distorted notion of equality but these people are saying things that are completely out of touch with biological reality.”


Kurt Fischer, director of the Mind, Brain, and Education Program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, has seen this firsthand. “I’ve been at faculty meetings where the notion that there are differences in the genders is ridiculed,” Fischer says. He adds, “[T]he first woman dean at Harvard was my dean when she got here, and when I would try to bring up studies that showed inborn gender differences she wouldn’t even allow it.”

Anyone who saw what happened to Harvard president Lawrence Summers — for even suggesting that there could be inborn gender differences — might conclude that challenging the claims of the Laura Pappanos of the world is an unnecessary headache. “When you have a large group of people with a vested interest in maintaining an agenda,” Fischer observes, “they’re going to find ways to attack anyone or anything that threatens their existence.”

#ad#The media have also obscured the facts in this debate. Young suggests a reason for this: “At most newspapers, Title IX is gospel at this point. And anything that could be seen as an argument against it is going to be ignored, attacked, or ridiculed.”

Professor Fischer was not surprised when I told him of my difficulties getting traction with my own data. “I have a colleague here in town that has a biologically based view of gender differences. She’s done a whole lot of research that shows fairly large, important differences between boys and girls in their socio-relationships at an early age. And she was prevented from publishing that at several points from people who just didn’t want to hear that point of view, regardless of the evidence.”

We almost certainly won’t hear anyone discussing controversial gender issues in all the hype surrounding the closing days of these Olympic Games. But maybe if we keep laying out the data in a calm and rational manner, we can advance the discussion beyond the biased, politically correct, opinionated nonsense that passes for serious intellectual debate on this subject.

Todd Gallagher is the author of Andy Roddick Beat Me with a Frying Pan: Taking the Field with Pro Athletes and Olympic Legends to Settle Sports Fans’ Greatest Debates.

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