What's the Difference Between a Male & Female Athlete?
There has been growing outage over the treatment of Caster Semenya by the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) which imposed regulations earlier in May regarding the maximum level of testosterone in female middle-distance runners and is compelling athletes with testosterone more than the imposed range to reduce it by taking medication. Since then Semenya appealed against the regulation in the Swiss Supreme Court and got a ruling in her favour giving time till 25th June to IAAF to respond.
The discussions range from whether it is ethical for governing bodies in sports to ask athletes to change their natural bodies in order to compete, to the underlying racial and gender biases that may have allowed such a decision. The incident reminded me of a question I was asked recently - “When we compare the best athletes, men must have some physical advantage over women. Otherwise, why do we still have separate events for men and women and why are all the records held by men?”
When I read about the IAAF incident, I figured I needed to take a look at the bodies of male and female athletes and gauge the extent to which their differences impact their performance. It turns out, both male as well as female athletes are at an advantage thanks to their physiology and their hormones, but in different kinds of events. To understand this better, let’s start from the basics.
We’ve always heard that the male body has been made different than the female body. In the context of sports, this bears a huge impact. We’re not looking at this as religious and conservative texts describe it but simply as how a human body functioning at near maximum efficiency depends upon the way it is built. When we talk about hormones, the two most common ones are Estrogen and Testosterone, which are inaccurately labelled as ‘female’ and ‘male’ hormones since both biologically male as well as biologically female bodies produce these hormones in different proportions. The differences in hormones allows bodies to develop differently and allow men and women to perform better at different kind of tasks and therefore, in different categories of events.
To quote an article by Heather Cruickshank, ” The physiological advantages in men include a larger body size with more skeletal muscle mass, a lower percentage of body fat, as well as greater maximal delivery of anaerobic and aerobic energy…While the exercise efficiency of men and women is usually similar, women have a better capacity to metabolize fat and demonstrate better hydrodynamics and more even pacing, which may be advantageous, in particular during long-lasting swimming competitions…But on average, women tend to have lower levels of circulating testosterone than men. This likely contributes to lower average muscle mass and cardiovascular capacity among women, which in turn affects their athletic performance.”
An infographic by Berkowitz and Cuadra states among other differences, the impact of hormones on increasing flexibility in female athletes since their “shallower pelvis allows more flexibility.” It also states, “Hormones may also play a part in making joints more lax.”
Anya Alvarez explores the difference between men and women in the world of golf in her article where she writes, “It’s not sexist to say that male golfers can drive the ball further than women. But suggesting that makes females lesser athletes is ridiculous…women are more accurate than men. What they lack in power, they make up for in finesse.”
So, when we strip away the narrative of all sociological differences and compare biologically male and female athletes physiologically only, it can be said that while men have more power and strength, women have better endurance and flexibility. Therefore, when it comes to events that involve long distance aerobic exercise, flexibility and if we look at Anya Alvarez’s article, accuracy, women are physiologically inclined to outperform men. In their research paper Bam et al concluded, “…women ultramarathon runners have greater fatigue resistance than do equally trained men whose performances are superior up to the marathon distance.”
Women are slowly getting better at sports. As more women join sports, the pool for data collection grows and we can get a better idea of how good, if not better, our bodies are against those of men. A research paper concludes, “The rate of improvement for women has been extraordinary and is larger for longer distance vents…The male physiology is more suited to anaerobic strength events while, given increased access and participation, women can be expected to be more on a par with men in some long-distance aerobic events.” (Chatterjee et al.).
Unfortunately, women in athletics are not isolated from sexism and other sociological deterrents. While Semenya struggles with the IAAF over her high levels of testosterone, let’s not forget how Michael Phelps was celebrated for the physical differences that gave him an edge over his competitors. “In a quirk that borders on supernatural, Phelps apparently produces just half the lactic acid of a typical athlete — and since lactic acid causes fatigue, he’s simply better equipped at a biological level to excel in his sport…Michael Phelps was treated as wondrous marvel. Nobody suggested he should be forced to have corrective surgery on his double-jointed ankles, nobody decided he should take medication to boost his lactic levels…Caster Semenya is treated like a mutant.” (Hesse, Monica).
The difference in the treatment of male and female athletes is glaringly obvious. Athletes who doesn’t ascribe to the regulating bodies’ definition of male and female risk their shot at glory and excellence in their sport. The benchmark of perfection is the cis male athlete (even when unfairly advantaged physiologically). Athletes who don’t meet that benchmark are considered less than elite, even after they have risked persecution and overcome barriers set by the society and often by their own families to pursue their sport of choice, and have worked tirelessly to achieve excellence, and it’s about time that changed.
Referring back to the article by Anya Alvarez, “What we should take offense to is when people think that women are not elite athletes simply because their bodies do not perform in the same way as those of their male counterparts.”